In 2015, April Reign’s viral hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite indicted the Academy for its lack of recognition of contributions made by creatives of color. Since then, on-screen representation has become a cause célèbre, with inclusivity initiatives that aim to navigate culture toward more gender and racial equality. However, numbers don’t tell the full story: How much freedom do black creators have when the storytelling expectations remain mired in variations of the black struggle?
This year, there are more Best Picture Oscar contenders centered on black lives than ever, but themes largely center on the complications of race and/or racism in films like “Green Book,” “BlacKkKlansman,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” And while the concerns of “Black Panther” are more intraracial, it’s a conflict rooted in the notion of a united global black liberation in response to white supremacy. The exception that proves the rule is Steve McQueen’s multi-racial ensemble heist thriller “Widows.” Though politically engaged on topical issues like police brutality and sexism, it’s a popcorn movie with a message.
With the film industry giving center stage to diversity and inclusion initiatives, black creatives are seeing a wider breadth of studio opportunities. However, black Oscar contenders remain defined by a narrow idea of what they are allowed to be, and that delimiting notion has the potential to stifle creative imagination and ambition, and as a result, muddy the development of African-American film and TV artistic achievement.
The old industry joke is that black performers only receive Academy Award consideration if they portray stock characters such as maids, butlers, “Magical Negroes,” slaves, mammies, and other symbols of black pathology and misery. That still carries resonance today. Oscar-sanctioned films about black life — “Training Day,” “Monster’s Ball,” “The Help,” “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma,” “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Get Out,” “Precious” — imply that the idea of black struggle, whether historical or present day, governs the contemporary industry viewpoint on what is genuine about that experience.
The crisis mentality sends a message to black creatives: Despair is the only route to prestige and awards season recognition. If this aesthetic is known as the preference of industry gatekeepers, it also threatens the evolution of black cinematic craftsmanship. No one wants to be marginalized, so there’s sometimes a rejection of the monikers “black filmmaker” or “black actor/actress,” underscoring the importance of their talent and stories over their race or ethnicity. As Idris Elba once said: “The less I talk about being black, the better.” The suggestion is classifications are limiting and antithetical to the advancement of the American “post-racial” dream Martin Luther King, Jr vocalized decades ago.
To be sure, these films should certainly exist. They can tell stirring stories, with great performances by the actors who lead them. However, the emphasis on crisis, while certainly a reality, tells an incomplete story at the expense of more prosaic depictions. Movies that portray ordinary stories about black lives can be profoundly instructive. However, the unspoken implication is they don’t represent what is perceived to be authentic black life; only white stories have that privilege.
Depictions of ordinary black life have been more likely to be made outside the studio system, including the feature debut of “Moonlight” Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008). While these films do address the unique complexities of the African-American experience, they aren’t the sole or central focus. When Jenkins released “Melancholy,” he quipped that he’d rarely, if ever, seen something so quotidian as black people riding bicycles in a feature film. Including that moment in “Melancholy” was seen as an almost revolutionary occurrence.
The Academy is moving in the right direction with an ongoing initiative that has seen the number of voters of color double from 8 percent in 2015 to 16 percent this year. However, the onus can’t fall entirely on the Academy’s shoulders: The body simply votes on Hollywood’s output. The dominant studio system that produces the bulk of those films will need to build a slate that considers not only just volume, but also variety in the kinds of stories about people of color it chooses to greenlight.
By comparison, since the awards debuted in 1929, Best Picture contenders have been dominated by stories that run the gamut of experiences lived by white people, and have room to be wildly imaginative by default. A romance between a mute janitor and an Amazonian fish-man, set in 1962, and filmed in dreamlike visuals? Why not? A technically dazzling film that tells the story of a faded star actor attempting a comeback, appearing to have been shot in one long continuous take? Of course. An epic fantasy adventure set in a fictional world populated by hobbits, elves, wizards, orcs, dragons and men, on a mystical quest that could cost them their lives? No problem! And the list goes on.
Viola Davis became the first-ever leading black actress to win an Emmy for drama in 2015 for her hit ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder,” in which she plays the kind of complex, dynamic, if race-neutral role rarely given to black actresses. At the ceremony, she thanked the creative minds behind the show: “Here’s to all the writers, the awesome people… who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.” This is a “redefinition” that requires an imagination from industry gatekeepers; a relinquishing of a limited, stereotypical understanding of the authentic black experience.