The Academy Awards have no problem honoring historical dramas, period pieces or scripts “based on a true story,” but has such admiration for these themes ever extended itself to films starring Black actors talking about “Black issues,” helmed by Black auteurs?
When the 2015 nominations were announced, Selma was disappointingly absent from categories outside of Best Picture and Best Original Song. The snub inspired the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The prestigious ceremony was accused of being out of touch and flippant in their blatant omission of one of this year’s most remarkable films that portrays one the most significant eras and icons in history. The Selma blackout prompted a discussion: does the Academy only honor the Black experience when told through the interpretation of White filmmakers? There’s been a negligence on their part in not recognizing the next generation of modern-day Black narratives.
Since its inception in 1928, the Academy Awards have comfortably acknowledged the Black experience through the subjugated revolving door of slavery, housekeeping, abuse and poverty. Last year’s winner 12 Years A Slave and some of Black Hollywood’s most celebrated films and thespians (think Denzel Washington in Glory) have been “victims” of this system.
The Oscars can honor 12 Years A Slave and maintain their integrity because it’s pop cultural reparations for “exposing” the truth about slavery and discrimination. There were no issues handing the “Best Actress ” trophy to Halle Berry for her role in Monster’s Ball because she played a Black mother in the good’ ol’, Confederate, rural South amongst typical White supremacists. These situations are embed in our social consciousness by well-intended White filmmakers.
The Academy finds it hard to reward Black films about stories not based a century and half ago. When Do The Right Thing and Boyz N The Hood brought 20th century life to the big screen with a dialogue and presentation that was happening in real-time, they did not win for Best Original Screenplay or Best Director for which they were nominated. The closest the Oscars have gotten to honoring the modern Black experience (as they were occurring) in recent memory was when they surprisingly honored Three 6 Mafia‘s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” from Hustle & Flow (I’m referring to Terrance Howard‘s character’s dreams of a rap career, not his 9-5 as a pimp) and Paul Haggis‘ irritably discombobulated race in America flick Crash. Crash won “Best Picture,” but Hollywood’s attempt at tackling racism was way too inflated. Despite a winning cast and some notable performances, in trying to squish every possible racial situation under the sun in two hours, it felt force-fed and too exasperating to take seriously. Let’s not forget, Crash was written and directed by a White man. What about racism and life as a Black woman or woman from the eyes, ears, and pen of an actual person of color?
Three films that notably come to mind that the Oscars did not uphold the Black voice that talked of the racism, tragedies, and triumphs of Black America were Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Talk To Me, and Fruitvale Station. Under the watch of Black artists Daniels, Kasi Lemmons, and Ryan Coogler, these films were predominately Black and Latino cast. The protagonists and supporting characters were expressed as heroes, martyrs, creatives, and revolutionaries. These esteemed titles, or nuanced roles, played by a Black actor or actress, have only been occasionally acknowledged by the Academy with nominations or wins. Golden statue’d roles like that of Whoopi Goldberg as the eccentric psychic in Ghost and Louis Gossett Jr. as a stalwart Sargent in An Office And a Gentlemen have been few and far between, even when guided under a White filmmaker. And there have been a handful of others before and after misbegotten by the Academy, such as The Color Purple and The Great Debaters.
Particularly, Fruitvale Station was one of the most recent evocative Black stories that was also astonishingly connected to current events. It was a true story that in Spring 2013, felt so real and hard to watch because it hauntingly foreshadowed the 2012 tragic death of unarmed, Black teen, in Florida, Trayvon Martin. In the film, Michael B. Jordan was a fitting tribute to Oscar Grant who (also unarmed) died at the hands of a Los Angeles cop on New Year’s Day in 2009. At the time, it greatly affected the Los Angeles community, but with Coogler’s indie, Grant’s untimely death finally gained national attention. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and Coogler’s command of a delicate subject were all praised as entertainment writers predicted it was a shoo-in for the 2014 ceremony. But Fruitvale Station was missing from the official Oscar roster, as room was made for The Wolf Of Wall Street, American Hustle, and of course, 12 Years A Slave. How did this independent film on police brutality that garnered so much applause and buzz go unnoticed for the 2014 ceremony? Fast-forward to 2015, the Academy made sure to include on its latest nominations list the equally praised but little seen, White-casted musical Whiplash. Why aren’t today‘s Black stories of importance to them? And why aren’t Black heroes as celebrated as the depictions of Abraham Lincoln trying to pass the 13th Amendment and royal King George VI getting over his speech impediment were by the Oscars?
This all brings us back to Selma. The Ava DuVernay film about the early ’60s marches for voting equality, is a beautiful testament to The Civil Rights movement that regardless of if it had been released in 1994 or as it was in 2014, is a film that will matter in years to come. Still, because it came out December 2014, Selma, while a historical film, was immediately reborn as a modern Black film because it alarmingly connected (like Fruitvale Station) to the concerns of equality and diversity that America was battling with greatly in real-time from the deaths of more unarmed Black youth and elders, and marches for justice. Suddenly what happened 51 years ago was more prevalent than ever in how far we’ve come, and maybe have not.
The Academy Awards have behaved fearfully and disregarded the ambitious Black artists behind the scenes with stories of the now. It would almost be revolutionary for the uptight organization that is currently 93% White, 76% male and at an average age of 63 years old to stand with a film like Fruitvale Station, sending a message to the world watching that Black lives told on film just as beautiful and worthy as one about White farmers, campers, and scientists. In not acknowledging Selma past its two nominations (it’s also one of the few films to have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrayed so extensively), the Academy turned its back on an American hero and momentous era, and that really speaks of how they view Black lives that not drenched in sorrow. The Academy must start rewarding not just Black heroes that are truthfully American heroes, and more icons of color, but also the new generations of Spike Lee‘s, John Singleton‘s, Julie Dash‘s and the Hughes Brothers, which would’ve been the presence of Ava DuVernay had she been nominated for Best Director — a shoulda, coulda, woulda historic moment for Black artists and female directors alike (it’s already been five years since Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director for The Hurt Locker). It seems the Academy chose to be quietly spiteful.
The snubs of Selma, and the great modern Black film, by the Academy will not affect the impact of these stories for years to come, but will cause the world’s most glamorous and revered award show to lose its credibility if they continue down this road. Now we’re not saying go ahead and nominated movies like Soul Plane just to appease Black folk. But for every time they got it so right in diversity and stories to celebrate (like nominating a 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis for Best Actress, or, here’s some real pop trivia for you, nominating Persian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo for her touching turn in The House of Sand And Fog), they got it so wrong in acting blase towards vital Black films and voices that cared so much to make sure the Black and brown luminaries and people of our history were not forgotten from our cultural memory anytime soon.