Ava Duvernay at the 2015 Academy Awards. (AP Photo/Inivision)
Black folks’ talent is nothing new, but it’s nice that the Oscars are recognizing it for once. A year after the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag due to a lack of black acknowledgment, the Academy is finally giving props where they’re due.
In 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, started by April Reign, surfaced on Twitter to call out the Academy’s lack of recognition for black actors, actresses, and filmmakers. In both the 2015 and 2016 awards, every single acting nominee was white. Every. Single. One. Folks like Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee boycotted the awards altogether last year, despite the Oscars pegging Chris Rock to host as an apparent consolation prize.
While others didn’t go as far to boycott the awards altogether, they spoke up about the lack of diversity, for blacks and minorities, in Hollywood. Black Hollywood had spoken about the issue in interviews before, but it was time for workers and fans came to collectively holding the Academy’s feet to the fire: if they were going to disrespect our accomplishments, we were going to disrespect their awards. The Academy’s President Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed the concern at last year’s annual nominees luncheon. “We all know there’s an elephant in the room,” she said. “I’ve asked that elephant to leave.”
But just as black Hollywood took the Academy to task, youngsters and OGs alike challenged themselves to keep pushing forward, making powerful work that was undeniable to anyone who saw it. They still knew that, as always, they’d have to be twice as good – and they delivered.
This year, the tides of diversified change have come rolling in. The Oscars have three films with predominately black casts in the Best Picture category – Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences – representation in all four acting categories, and a best director nomination for Barry Jenkins. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) were nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, and Denzel Washington (Fences) was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Three black women were nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures). And Ethiopian/Irish actress Ruth Negga (Loving) was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In total, seven of the 20 actor and actress nominees are people of color. Moonlight netted an incredible eight nominations, and Fences received four nominations. Joi McMillon could be the first black woman to win a Best Editing Oscar for her work on Moonlight. Bradford Young is the first black American to be nominated for Best Cinematography for his work in Arrival.
Much has been spoken about black TV’s renaissance with the birth of shows like Atlanta, Insecure and Queen Sugar, but there were plenty of incredible black films this past year, too. While fake activists were coming down on folks for refusing to buy tickets to the controversial Nate Parker and his Nat Turner film Birth of A Nation, there were black films being released that earned and deserved our support. Moonlight shook with its powerful stillness as it depicted a young queer boy’s coming of age in Miami. Hidden Figures, which told the story of three brilliant mathematicians and scientists at NASA, masterfully showed a historical account of black girl magic that all of us should have been taught years ago. Fences was Denzel Washington’s most powerful performance in years, and Viola Davis was one of the few women (arguably the first) to match Washington’s legendary intensity on screen.
But what makes this year even more powerful is seeing more people of color not just on the screen, but as directors and behind the scenes. Within the past two years, there have been multiple black films that received nominations, but not for the black people involved, (see Sylvester Stallone’s Best Supporting Actor nomination in Creed, or a crew of white writers’ Best Screenplay nomination for Straight Outta Compton.) This year, that seems to be changing. Mimi Valdes and Pharrell Williams produced Hidden Figures under Pharrell’s company i am OTHER. Denzel Washington directed Fences, being sure to give black playwright August Wilson’s play the nuance it deserved. Moonlight was written and directed by a black man, Barry Jenkins, and may not have more than two white people appear in the entire film. Not to mention the strong black presence in the Best Documentary Feature category: Ava Duvernay’s 13th, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America, and Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin-inspired I Am Not Your Negro were three of the six nominations. Black artists aren’t just giving stellar performances; they’re making moves in ways that further ensure that they won’t get lost in the shuffle.
The problem with the Oscars hasn’t only been black actors and filmmakers’ lack of nominations, but a lack of opportunity. Black actors and actresses rarely get quality roles that allow them to fully show their capabilities, and directors and producers have difficulty finding funding for their work. There has also been the complaint that the few black films that do receive nominations either show black people as slaves or civil rights leaders, villains or drug addicts. Selma and 12 Years A Slave deserved their Oscars glory, but so do other black films. Denzel’s performance as a crooked cop in Training Day earned the Oscar it received, but he arguably deserved one for his portrayal of Malcolm X as well. Halle Berry is a household name in black cinema, but her first Oscar was for her role in Monster’s Ball, which explicitly showed her having sex with a white man; to date, she’s still the only black woman to ever receive the Best Actress Academy Award. Such restrictions go behind the screen as well: McMillon was stuck in reality TV until a white colleague put her on.
While this year’s nominations address some of those concerns, there’s still more work to do. While the Academy has rewarded this year’s great work, it appears that many of the structural issues that led to such exclusion haven’t been rectified. While celebrating this year’s nominees – and trust, we will celebrate – let’s not allow one year of progress be expected to make up for more than 80 years of exclusion. Hollywood seems to be slowly improving, but the same applies to them: black film professionals still need more consistent access to quality opportunities. And as viewers, we need to continue supporting the black actors, actresses, and projects that we love. It’ll be a great day when a nomination or a job is just a nomination or a job, instead of a historical benchmark. Let’s pop bottles and tune in on Feb. 26, but the work will always continue for black Hollywood – let’s make sure the work continues for the Academy, too.
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