Who Could, Should and Will Win at the 89th Academy Awards

 Viola Davis and  Denzel Washington take a bow during the Broadway opening of Fences in New York City on April 26, 2010. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Viola Davis and Denzel Washington take a bow during the Broadway opening of Fences in New York City on April 26, 2010. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

I have a complicated relationship with the Academy Awards.

As I’ve said before, when we need the approval and validation of the dominant group in order for us to see our own work as valuable, we engage in a form of internalized racism that centers whiteness even as we engage in the subversive work of expressing black brilliance.


Yet, recognition is nice. We should not place too much of an emphasis on attaining white acknowledgment, but I feel it appropriate to celebrate the few times these award shows get it right.

Below, you will see a breakdown by category of each of the black nominees and whether they could, should or will win.

Best Picture



Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

Hidden Figures

La La Land


Manchester by the Sea


Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t deserve to be nominated, and La La Land will almost certainly win because it’s the kind of movie Hollywood loves—but Moonlight should win for best picture. I was emotionally devastated by Barry Jenkins’ film, but white folks love La La Land and the academy is overwhelmingly white. I’d be fine if Manchester by the Sea won, since Kimberly Steward is only the second black woman to be nominated for producing a film in the running for best picture. (The first was Oprah with Selma.)

Could win: Manchester by the Sea

Should win: Moonlight

Will win: La La Land

Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington in Fences

Seven-time nominee Denzel Washington is the most-nominated black actor in the history of the academy, and in Washington’s hands, Troy Maxson came alive as a complicated, flawed man. His only real competition for the Oscar is Casey Affleck, who played Lee Chandler, an introverted man overcome with grief. Affleck was the front-runner to win the award until his history of sexual assault was uncovered. As a result, Washington is poised to win after bringing home the Screen Actors Guild award.


Could win: Casey Affleck

Should win: Denzel Washington

Will win: Denzel Washington

Actor in a Supporting Role

Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water

Mahershala Ali in Moonlight

Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

Dev Patel in Lion

Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Mahershala Ali is poised to win best supporting actor for his tender portrayal of Juan in Moonlight. While he plays the role of a drug dealer, the way he realizes the character shows that kindness is possible in even the direst of circumstances.


Ali has had an incredible year. He seems to have knocked Idris Elba off the sexiest-chocolate-man-alive pedestal, he was charismatic in Hidden Figures and he’s racked up the early awards while charming Oscar voters with his acceptance speeches. If he does not win, there will be blood in the streets.

Could win: Anyone white (It’s still the Oscars.)

Should win: Mahershala Ali

Will win: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a Leading Role

Isabelle Huppert in Elle

Ruth Negga in Loving

Natalie Portman in Jackie

Emma Stone in La La Land

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

In Loving, Ruth Negga plays Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the court case that struck down prohibitions against interracial marriage, as a quiet, soft-spoken woman weary of miscegenation laws. It is an understated role, which does not speak well for her Oscar prospects. Emma Stone, the female lead of La La Land, is almost guaranteed to win. It’s shocking that Viola Davis was not nominated in this category for her role in Fences. If she were nominated, she would be a lock.


Could win: Ruth Negga

Should win: Viola Davis (although she wasn’t even nominated!)

Will win: Emma Stone

Actress in a Supporting Role

Nicole Kidman in Lion

Viola Davis in Fences

Naomie Harris in Moonlight

Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea 

Viola Davis better win this damn thing. She has received the most nominations for a black actress, with three, and she was robbed when she did not win best actress for The Help. Octavia Spencer’s nomination for playing Dorothy Vaughan, a no-nonsense NASA mathematician and supervisor struggling against the overt racism and sexism of 1960, in Hidden Figures is deserving, as is that of Naomie Harris, who plays the emotionally abusive Paula, mother of Moonlight’s Chiron. But Davis is a force of nature in Fences. She is deserving and she is due.


Could win: Any non-POC (Oscars be Oscaring.)

Should win: Viola Davis

Will win: Viola Davis

Best Director

Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge

Damien Chazelle for La La Land

Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea

Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins is only the fourth black best-director nominee, after John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen. (Shockingly, Spike Lee has never received a nomination for best director.) Damien Chazelle is a serious contender to win, but I’m going with my heart and picking Jenkins. His command of the medium allowed the emotionally affecting material to speak for itself.


Could win: Damien Chazelle

Should win: Barry Jenkins

Will win: Barry Jenkins

Documentary (Feature)

Fire at Sea

I Am Not Your Negro 

Life, Animated

O.J.: Made in America


This has been a strong year for documentaries. Ava DuVernay (13th), Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America) and Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) have given us an embarrassment of riches. Only three other black directors have been nominated in this category, and DuVernay, of course, is the first black woman. I deeply enjoyed 13th and was moved by I Am Not Your Negro. But I am impressed by the scope of O.J.: Made in America (if not perplexed by its ability to be nominated, given the length), and O.J. has a great deal of momentum and is the front-runner to win.


Could win: 13th

Should win: I Am Not Your Negro

Will win: O.J. Made in America

Film Editing


Hacksaw Ridge 

Hell or High Water 

La La Land 


Joi McMillon is the first black woman to be nominated, and the second black editor ever in the category, for her work in Moonlight. I’m picking her seamless work on the movie that allowed a subdued film to never be boring. La La Land is a favorite to win, but I’m picking an upset because of the love the film has received of late.


Could win: La La Land

Should win: Moonlight

Will win: Moonlight

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)



Hidden Figures



Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins are only the seventh and eighth black men ever nominated for screenplay honors. Criminally, Jenkins is merely the second black writer-director to be nominated for both categories, after John Singleton in 1991 with Boyz n the Hood. Yet August Wilson should win for Fences because, well, it’s a masterpiece of American literature. But with the amount of love Moonlight has received, it’s almost certain to win.


Could win: August Wilson for Fences

Should win: August Wilson for Fences

Will win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight



La La Land




Moonlight is beautifully shot, and Bradford Young, the second African American ever nominated in this category, is effective in how he moves the camera in Arrival—but I cannot deny that La La Land shoots Los Angeles in a way that makes the city come alive. The opening shot is enough to win the award.


Could win: Arrival or Moonlight

Should win: La La Land

Will win: La La Land

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold the 89th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. It has the potential to be one of the blackest ceremonies in the history of whiteness.