Why Lakeith Stanfield Was Nominated in Supporting and Not Lead for ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ (Opinion)

When Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas announced the nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards, the most shocking inclusion was Lakeith Stanfield in best supporting actor for his performance in Warner Bros’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Not surprising from the standpoint of quality, as he delivers a career-best turn as William O’Neal — an FBI informant that betrays the trust of his friend Fred Hampton, who is played by his fellow nominee and Oscar frontrunner Daniel Kaluuya — but shocking because he campaigned in lead actor.

Kaluuya and Stanfield’s categorization has been debated within social media circles, believing that the former is the co-lead of Shaka King’s historical drama and should have campaigned there appropriately. Even on my personal ballot, I recognized Kaluuya in the lead actor lineup. One theory was that the acting branch might have seen the film as an ensemble piece, similar to “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and voted for both in the category. While not for certain, the more plausible speculation is that Kaluuya received a large number of votes in lead actor, despite being campaigned in supporting. Many of those ballots likely had Stanfield listed for supporting, and vice versa. According to the Academy’s rules, an actor cannot be nominated twice in the same category, or for the same performance in two separate categories. This dates back to the 1945 best picture winner “Going My Way,” where Barry Fitzgerald was nominated in both best actor and supporting actor. After this, the Academy changed the rules, and if an actor receives enough votes in both lead and supporting categories (or for two separate performances in the same category), the performance that receives the larger number of votes ultimately becomes the nominee.

This would lead to the conclusion that Kaluuya had enough best actor votes to secure a spot in the best actor category, presumably over either Gary Oldman (“Mank”) or Steven Yeun (“Minari”), but then received more votes in supporting, ultimately sealing his nomination. With Stanfield likely on the lead ballots, he had enough votes to secure one of the slots in the best supporting actor category. This would not only speak to the strength of the film — which landed six Oscar nominations, including best picture — but to the sheer probability that the film is possibly contending in several categories and could have broad support.

In the history of the Oscars, there have been a handful of performances campaigned in supporting categories but nominated in lead due to the Academy giving the acting branch freedom to place the actor or actress where they see fit. Some recent examples have been when Kate Winslet won best supporting actress at the Golden Globe and SAG awards for 2008’s “The Reader” before she was nominated, and eventually won best actress at the Oscars. Keisha Castle-Hughes was also gunning for recognition for her work in “Whale Rider” in supporting actress, even garnering a nomination at the SAG awards, before the Oscars called an audible, switching her to lead. At the time, she was the youngest nominee in the category’s history (before Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for “Beast of the Southern Wild”).

We’ve never seen a lead performance campaigned and later given recognition in supporting. Though it’s unclear what the exact circumstances were, Benicio del Toro (“Traffic”) and Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”) were both nominated in lead at the SAG awards in 2001 and 2002, which honors the studio submissions; however, they were nominated and won in supporting at the Oscars. For Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” Steve Carell landed nominations in lead at the Golden Globes and SAG awards. Still, he turned a few heads when he was nominated as best supporting actor at the BAFTA Awards, causing speculation in the 2014-2015 awards season that he could be switched on Oscar nomination morning, which didn’t occur.

It needs to be emphasized how monumental Stanfield’s nomination is. He has received just one citation this entire awards season, at the Black Reel Awards in outstanding actor. Not since Marina de Tavira landed her shocking nomination for “Roma” has an actor been able to muster that type of support. In addition, there have never been two Black actors nominated in the same category from the same film. We’ve seen plenty of double dips the last few years like “The Irishman” (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), but this is reminiscent of when Dianne Wiest was running away with her second Oscar for “Bullets over Broadway” (1994) and managed to bring in co-star Jennifer Tilly, who only had a nomination from the American Comedy Awards.

The co-lead phenomenon or awards strategist’s apprehension to rolling the dice has always been problematic. It has caused a stir over time, most prominently in 2015 when Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander were nominated for “Carol” and “The Danish Girl,” with the latter winning. Both are heavily believed to be leading roles for the respective films. What do we do now that Kaluuya and Stanfield are nominated in the same category, but it’s not the leading one? Can we look at “Judas and the Black Messiah” as an ensemble piece, with equal narrative arcs given to the characters played by Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Ashton Sanders?

As category interpretation is ultimately subjective, we can celebrate that there was likely a Kaluuya in lead surprise. The acting branch saw the merits of a film that got off to a late start, but showed up in a big way at the Academy Awards. Kaluuya remains the frontrunner after winning Critics Choice and the Golden Globes and is looking strong to win SAG; but with five weeks left, anything can transpire.

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