The Importance of The Oscar's Light From The Black Lens [Opinion]

The Importance of The Oscar's Light From The Black Lens

Oscars 2017: Thembisa Mshaka On Oscars + The Light From The Black Lens

Photo of Oscar 2017 nominees courtesy of Wilson Morales of Black Film.

In film, as in life, one’s point of view is decisive. Once the point of view is established, it provides the context for both characters and audiences. Point of view is what drops viewers into the world of the film, and makes it possible to learn something new. At a minimum, you learn something new about the world your ticket bought you. At best, you learn something new about yourself.

The power of art lies in this singular truth: there are infinite points of view.

The Achilles Heel of Hollywood has been a dangerously stubborn denial of that truth; an attachment to assigning greater value to some points of view than others. This attachment is a Petri dish for stereotype, tropes, and myopia. It can even lead to box office bombs and more loss than profit.

Allow me to share just two examples of this stubbornness. Hollywood has been obsessed with whitewashing Egypt on film, going as far back as The Ten Commandments (Charleston Heston as Moses) and Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor in the title role). In the 21st century, this obsession backfired—twice. Exodus: Gods and Kings had an entirely white primary cast of actors playing ancient Africans. The film Gods of Egypt took the same route, and just added some mythical robotic creatures. (Maybe this addition was supposed to be some kind of solve? Given tentpole production and release schedules, it’s doubtful). Both of these films tanked at the box office. Exodus faced boycotts and a royal social media dragging that resulted in the director apologizing for his regrettable casting choices. Gods of Egypt died a quiet death in American theaters, taking in just $31 million domestically. Production budget? $140 million. Global receipts pushed it over $150 million, allowing it to break even, but that level of spend to make and market the film was expected to return half a billion in receipts. Exodus: Gods and Kings fared better, pulling $65 million in the US, and $203 million worldwide at the same production budget of $140 million.

Still a huge underperformer.

Theses films’ narrow, jaundiced points of view were their fatal flaw. The most diverse American moviegoing audiences Hollywood has ever served as customers are no longer boxed into paying to be whitewashed at the movies. Plausibility still holds weight, even as they are asked to suspend disbelief. Beyond that, viewers can turn their gaze to platforms like Netflix, BET, The El Rey Network and Amazon, where multicultural points of view and experiences are not just represented, but celebrated in all their complexity.

The Academy got a taste of this when the #OscarsSoWhite controversy called out a deeply troubling lack of representation and diversity among its nominees in major categories for two consecutive years, 2015 and 2016. According to The Los Angeles Times, this prompted Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to rewrite the membership rules. In a 2016 interview with them, she noted, “We’ve been a more than the predominantly white institution for a long time. We thought we’ve got to change this and reflect the community much better.”

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