Editor’s Note: Blue Telusma is a Washington-based writer and editor for theGrio.com, an online site devoted to perspectives that affect and reflect the African-American community. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Follow her on Twitter.
Blue Telusma: Once again, Oscar nominations left out worthy performances from black people
She says pop culture can sway societal norms and laws, and calls for viewers to skip Oscars
Thursday morning, I received a text from a colleague that simply read “Oscars so white?” and without even taking a moment to reflect I instantly knew what that meant.
They’d done it again.
2016 would be yet another year where people of color would be blatantly ignored by the boys club that is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Granted, this is nothing new. The Oscars have done this for generations; occasionally throwing black people a bone with yet another historical drama about slavery or some new sensational part of the civil rights movement orchestrated to tug at our heartstrings. Once in a while, an A-list actor such as Will Smith will get a glimpse at the winner circle for a movie such as “The Pursuit of Happyness,” but unfortunately those types of victories only come in spurts.
According to Hollywood, the only black stories worth telling (and awarding) in recent years appear to be the ones about us getting whipped by “Massa” or fighting to sit at the front of the bus during the Jim Crow era. While “12 Years a Slave” and “The Help” were both formidable projects worthy of their Oscar nods, they highlight the sad reality that the academy is more likely to take notice when the black experience is portrayed as some sort of monolithic response to white guilt.
It’s almost as if they are saying that blackness, on its own, simply isn’t enough.
Our space in this arena is a narrow one. We are mostly allowed to be servants or sidekicks – stoic oppressed characters such as Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” or Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple” who astound audiences with our ability to sing Negro spirituals and maintain forgiving hearts even in the face of injustice.
Yet lighthearted films by and about black people, or depictions of our quieter tragedies and our everyday moments of light and triumph – you know, all the narratives that, when they’re the product of white actors and filmmakers, usually get nominated for Oscars – just aren’t sensational enough to make the cut. The fact that “Creed” was both written and directed by Ryan Coogler (who is black) and stars Michael B. Jordan (who is also black) but only received a nomination for its white supporting actor (Sylvester Stallone) – is a glaring example of just how shameless and overt this bias can be.
And even when one of us does slip through the cracks and gets nominated, as a collective we know better than to get too comfortable, because it will probably be several years before we get another chance. Since 1939, only about 50 black actors and actresses and three black directors have even been nominated for Academy Awards, with 15 of them making it to the podium with a win under their belt. That’s over 76 years!
To a person of color who loves movies as much as I do, those statistics are infuriating.
Last year, when I made a big fuss on Facebook about the Academy Awards being a, sexist, outdated popularity contest, many people – black people especially – asked me why I cared so much. The general consensus apparently being that these types of awards shows aren’t for “us” and “our kind” anyway, so it’s best not to keep complaining about them.
I could not disagree more.
The fact is visibility and representation matter. The representations of black people in art, fashion, the media and in films set societal norms, and societal norms ultimately can end up, affecting, say, legislation.
Before you roll your eyes and say I’m making too much of a reach, let me take you back to 1993 when homophobia and stigma around HIV was still at an all-time high. Back then, a little movie called “Philadelphia” was a box-office hit and was nominated for five Oscars and won two, including best actor for Tom Hanks and best original song.
These were the days where even the hint of homosexuality or a HIV-positive status could ruin someone’s life and career. Yet that movie, and the many films and television shows that followed in its footsteps, humanized a whole group of people and gave Americans an opportunity to show compassion for characters they may have previously dismissed as “the other.”
The essential Denzel Washington
That is the power of film and art in general. It has the ability to shift collective perspectives and create much needed dialogues – and this can result in people living on the margins finally getting a voice. In the ’90s, “Philadelphia” was considered controversial and edgy. Now a little more than 20 years later, same-sex marriage has been legalized on a federal level and supporting AIDS charities is as socially acceptable as buying Girl Scout cookies.
Conversely, a movie such as “Fruitvale Station,” about the last moments of an unarmed black man’s life before he is senselessly killed by police officers at a train station, was snubbed by the academy eight months before Michael Brown was killed.
It was an urgent and timely call to action well before #BlackLivesMatter was even conceptualized, with black and white moviegoers alike confused as to why such a deeply deserving project was ignored.
I shudder to think how much good that movie could have done if it had been given half as much visibility as “Philadelphia.” It could have galvanized the public around the issues of racial discrimination and unlawful arrests of black youth.
Oscar-winning best actors
By dismissing this as just another year of #OscarsSoWhite, we are missing an opportunity to make a greater statement. The power of social media and of Black Twitter in particular is undeniable. Last year, for example, groups of black American women in Greek organizations were so angered by the stereotypical, offensive portrayals in VH1’s “Sorority Sisters,” that they were able to get major advertisers to stop supporting the show, and ultimately got it pulled from its prime-time slot entirely.
Producer and writer Shonda Rhimes has become a media powerhouse and is arguably the Aaron Spelling of this generation, due in large part to the support of her vocal Twitter following. Instead of chasing record deals, pop stars are now being discovered on social media platforms, and major corporations pay influential bloggers and YouTubers millions of dollars a year just to mention their products.
Now more than ever the average person sitting at his or her laptop has the ability not just to complain but to incite real change. In an age where traffic, likes and ad revenue are king, I am grudgingly coming to the conclusion that the only effective response to yet another whitewashed Oscars may be to stage a “blackout” and stop supporting it all together.
Watching Chris Rock host a broadcast where his brothers and sisters are being so willfully disregarded may be more than I can handle this year.
Instead of just accepting that the academy isn’t checking for us, I say we shift the paradigm and show the Oscars that we’re no longer checking for them either.