By Jill Serjeant
(Reuters) - If the Oscars turn out to be "so white" again next year, it will not be for a lack of candidates.
A handful of critically acclaimed movies featuring people of color are vying for awards attention this year, ranging from a Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama to historical tales of men and women fighting for dignity.
The 2016 Oscars were mired in controversy when not a single person of color was nominated in the acting categories for a second straight year, and all eight best-picture nominees reflected white, mostly male, culture.
"2017 could be historic because theoretically we could see all four acting Oscars go to someone of color. It's possible," said Tom O'Neil, editor of awards prediction website Goldderby.com.
What is exciting about the 2017 contenders is the range of topics, said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The criticism of Hollywood has been in the past that if you are making a black film, it's either going to be about slavery or civil rights," Hunt said.
That is hardly the case for "Moonlight," a heart-wrenching, contemporary tale of a black boy growing up in Miami struggling with bullying, his sexual identity and the scourge of drugs. Made with little-known actors, it has gotten some of the best reviews of the year and has been nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards.
"Hidden Figures," opening on Christmas Day, is the true story of three unsung African-American women mathematicians (played by Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Taraji P. Henson) who worked on NASA's early space missions, while "Lion," starring Dev Patel, is the real-life tale of an Indian child who gets lost in Calcutta and is adopted by a white couple in Australia.
"Loving" focuses on an unassuming blue-collar white man and black woman in Virginia who were sentenced to prison in 1958 for getting married. "Fences," the movie version of the Pulitzer-winning stage play by August Wilson, is expected to bring Oscar nominations for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
ALTERNATIVES TO 'BIRTH OF A NATION'
Nominations for Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards are announced next week, while Oscar nominees are unveiled on Jan 24.
Most of this year's contenders were in production before the Hollywood soul-searching prompted by #OscarsSoWhite. But unlike some previous years, movie studios are throwing money behind promoting them.
"If you have a film that is diverse in terms of the cast and tells nontraditional stories, you're definitely going to get some mileage out of that and promote it. And the media are going to highlight it in ways that maybe they didn't four or five years ago," said Hunt.
Ironically, "The Birth of a Nation," the slave rebellion drama that looked like an Oscar front-runner earlier this year, now appears to be out of awards contention.
Bought for $17.5 million in a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the movie was later overshadowed by headlines about a 17-year-old rape case involving its writer, director and lead actor, Nate Parker, who was acquitted in a 2001 trial.
The film has taken in just $16 million at the North American box office since opening in October.
"The controversy really tripped up the film. It made it uncool to see the film even though it had done very well at early festivals and with film critics," said Goldderby.com's O'Neil.
Fortunately for an awards season looking to redeem itself on the diversity front, "there are other alternatives to fall back on," O'Neil said.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)