The 2014 Academy Award nominations were announced today with two prominent Black films, “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler,” noticeably missing from the ranks. While “12 Years A Slave” dominated nominations, we can’t ignore the Academy’s consistent disregard for Black films (particularly this year) even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences elected, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, its first Black president in 2013. If ever I thought a Black film was deserving of an Oscar nomination, it is now.
I walked out onto the New York City street and sucked in a generous breath of air. An Olympic-pool size of emotion was weighing down my heart. I had just saw a movie that changed my life. “Fruitvale Station” premiered on January 19, 2013 during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (under the title “Fruitvale”). The story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man killed by a gun shot wound to his back while handcuffed by police on the BART system, was more than jolting it was a reminder of the injustices and disconnect between Black men and the criminal justice system. It was released in theaters, during the crux of the Trayvon Martin trial–that too exhibited just how unimportant to our society Black men are. Just like George Zimmerman, Officer Johannes Mehserle, the officer who testified that he was reaching for his taser when he shot Grant, evaded a second degree murder charge for unnecessarily taking a life.
Roger Ebert gave “Fruitvale Station” four stars and called Michael B. Jordan’s performance “brilliant.” It holds a 94% approval rating on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, but you don’t have to take their word for it, if you’ve watched “Fruitvale Station” a tear is the most minimal of reactions. Within weeks of its release, “Fruitvale Station” was hailed as an Oscar contender and the Black community could nearly detect a delicate scent of recognition. We should have known that faint aroma would turn into a whiff of disappointment.
According to a February 2012 study conducted by the Los Angeles Times (sampling over 5,000 of its 5,765 members), the Academy is 94% white, 77% male, 14% under the age of 50 which could explain why “Fruitvale Station” didn’t garner enough votes to be in the running for “Best Picture” or “Best Actor” though it deserved to be among its peers on the nomination list. The plight of the Black man will never resonate with 50-year-old White men who’ve been fortunate enough to live a life that doesn’t include dying while riding public transportation after a New Year’s Eve celebration…assuming they’ve ever endured the pungent smell of clustered bodies after a long days work on a train that never arrives on time. Still, an optimistic one would hope that the undeniable truth, that Oscar Grant should not have faced the inevitable that night and in such an inhumane way, would luster enough shine even the out-of-touch Academy couldn’t deny it.
But the Oscars aren’t necessarily about who can turn a personal story turned into a movie. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences set out to bestow “awards of merit for distinctive achievement.” Though it was shot in 20 days in Oakland, California simplicity does not equal mediocrity and there was nothing mediocre about “Fruitvale Station.” Michael B. Jordan, who earned his acting stripes on “The Wire,” was beyond impressive. He embodied the complexity of a young man down on his last strike and transitioned in and out of dynamic emotions like anger, frustration and love. The film effectively portrayed Oscar Grant as a man, not a number in the corrections system, but a father, boyfriend, son and friend.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs took office in 2013, becoming the first African-American and third woman to lead the Academy. She is a film marketing executive who has held a position on the AMPAS Board of Governors for a total of 21 years. It’s hard to assume that she or someone else on the board of governors didn’t mention “Fruitvale Station” when recounting all the films of 2013. If we put aside color, for a moment, not resting on the fact that she and the majority of “Fruitvale Station’s” cast share the same skin color and focus whole-heartedly on the film being no short of amazing, we’d allow it to be recognized for that fact, and nothing else.
The films’ director Ryan Coogler, a stout and humble novice with unbelievable talent, was attending the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Grant was shot on January 1, 2009. He set out thereafter to tell Grant’s story when Forest Whitaker caught eye of Coogler’s project and wanted in. Whitaker produced “Fruitvale Station” and brought it to the mainstream. “Fruitvale Station” is a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen before on a big screen even though many of us know an Oscar Grant. I do.
Months later, Forest Whittaker starred in the Lee Daniels-directed film “The Butler” that further exposes the treatment of Blacks in history. Some would say “The Butler” was a shoo-in for a Best Picture” nom yet it only received a mere nod for…nothing.
“12 Years A Slave” eclipsed “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler” and we applaud the historic film but that doesn’t ease the obvious. The Academy has given us plenty evidence that there can only be one exceptional Black movie per year and it seems patternized that Blacks only win in slave, villain, disenfranchised or domestic roles like: “Gone With The Wind,” “Training Day,” “The Help” or “Precious.”
Reading the nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards was heartbreaking in the same vain as listening to the lead juror read Zimmerman’s “Not Guilty” verdict. It is that constant reminder that yes, Blacks have to work twice as hard for the same amount of gain as our White counterparts, but also that even when we are just as great (or better) it still doesn’t guarantee recognition.
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