The State of the Race

 Final Ballots Sent as We Close Out Oscar’s Historic Year

It’s 2017. Oscar ballots are sent out today to 6,000 or so Academy members to make their final choices. While tabulation shifts in the preferential ballot might still bring a shocking surprise at night’s end, I would not bet on it. This race, as David Poland and Kris Tapley long ago proclaimed, was over in September. The winner was chosen and that was that. Most seem happy with the choice and at least we’ll have a Best Picture winner that features a Best Actress nominee — probably a Best Actress winner — a rarity that we haven’t seen for over a decade. It might be a low bar for celebration, but it’s been 12 years since that happened. 12 years.

Still, it’s hard to look at this year and not be astonished by the historic representation of the African American experience among the Oscar-nominated films. These stories got told and rose to prominence because they were undeniably worthy. By some miracle, none relied directly on any white characters who swooped in to make things right. Rather each was about fascinating characters in the black community with whole and complete loves, apart from white society. This is true with all three films up for Best Picture – Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures. I have been writing about the Oscars for a long time and I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that there is no way these films would have been chosen had the Academy, or even the critics or bloggers, not been pushed by a hashtag and a boycott to change the way they think about what defines “best.”

That’s because most people like to see stories that reflect who they are. Choosing their favorite film of the year has less to do with greatness and more to do with how a movie makes them feel. White audiences often feel personally scolded by stories that are too overtly critical of attitudes in the white community that black characters must cope with, so they shut down some of their personal involvement. If we would stop to think about that, it’s easier to imagine how it feels for black or Hispanic or Asian filmgoers to be absent from all the thousands of wall-to-wall white movies Hollywood made for decades. How discouraging and alienating it feels to be largely excluded, since the beginning of film history, to repeatedly see the white experience and white history about white people as the only authentic stories being told onscreen. But Fences and Moonlight and Hidden Figures all tell universal stories, don’t they? They’re not really fixated on the interaction between black or white at all – though surely that has to be there because it’s always there.

Maybe not everyone has noticed how the Academy evolved in the right direction ever so slightly this year. Some have probably resisted paying attention to what’s happening because many are irritated that we still need to have this conversation. “Why can’t we just make it about the movies,” is a question we hear every year. “Why does it have to be about race or strife or balance or diversity?” Complaints are continuous to point of monotony. “It should be about the most deserving, not about anything else,” or “People should choose the best, not for any other reason.”

Yes, yes, that’s right, “the best.” Got it. Yep. That’s what it’s all about. The built-in filters of history have always, of course, backed this up because that’s what the filters are there for. Year after year Best Picture winners are brought back out into the self-affirming spotlight to remind us all what great choices they made and how well thought through it really was and how it was truly about Miss Right instead of Miss Right Now. I will have a lot more to say about the film that is winning Best Picture and why it’s the perfect film to award this year. But I’ve chosen to hold off on all that for the time being because I never want to target a film that is about to win Best Picture while Oscar ballots are still in the hands of voters. Suffice it to say my feelings about the charming film we all love changed dramatically once Donald Trump became president. My feelings changed because I changed. Because the country changed. But that isn’t La La Land’s fault.

Ava DuVernay’s 13th probably won’t be winning Best Documentary Feature because O.J.: Made in America is a more comfortable sit for white voters. 13th is an indictment of the shameful systematic targeting of black men in America’s prison system. O.J.’s story is about finally nailing a black criminal who very nearly got away with murder. People will say, “No, O.J.: Made is America is winning because it’s the best.” Well, it is no doubt an impressive achievement, and its eight hour length is part of the reason. There has never, to my knowledge, been an Oscar winner that take an entire half a day to watch — or, more likely, watched over a number of days. 13th tells its story well within the boundaries of the regular documentary format. Can you imagine if 13th was as long as O.J.: Made in America? Where each two hour episode covered a different era of the centuries-long history of the African American experience? Had DuVernay done that and sustained the vast wealth of material the way we know she can, there is no way it would not be winning. Then again, the film by its own explicit intentions doesn’t go easy on white people, nor should it, and that always bothers Academy voters. O.J.: Made in America brilliantly depicts all the forces in play that built the O.J. myth and then tore it down. It isn’t without criticism of its white participants either, that’s for sure, but it still nails the black guy for murder. 13th is not about black men who are guilty of heinous crimes but rather about the flagrant inequity of forced criminality aimed at a class of people – an outrageous system first put in place after the Civil War that still plagues society on today – and already promises to be made far worse by the Trump administration.

Sad to say, for all the voices being heard and all the progress being made, real change seems to come with frustrating lethargy.  Yesterday’s BAFTA awards and last night’s Grammy Awards began to feel like a double-barrel foreshadowing of Oscar night confirming our worst fears. When we look at Beyonce’s Lemonade vs. Adele’s 25 we see two very personal albums. Both are brilliantly conceived, beautifully written, and stunningly performed. Both are embedded in American culture in different ways. Adele is sort of a global phenomenon in terms of how many records she’s selling, while Beyonce is the more daring and groundbreaking artist whose film iteration of Lemonade’s music actually surpassed most of what we saw in theaters all year. Interestingly, Beyonce appears to be focused on changing the music landscape for future generations. She knows that perception is everything – she knows that growing up as a young black girl in America is the antithesis of pop-culture trends dominating the 20th century that worshipped the white stars – the Barbies, the Vogue cover-girls, the Oscar ingenues. She’s intent on bringing better balance to that.

As Beyonce said in her acceptance speech:

“It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families — as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys — and see themselves, and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race. And I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes. Thank you again for honoring “Lemonade.” Have a beautiful evening. Thank you for tonight. This is incredible.”

We here in America have long ordained our gods and goddesses to be white-skinned people and have held those images up as the gold standard, or the default or the norm. One reason Hidden Figures feels so groundbreaking is because it took 56 years to bring the story of the black women at NASA who helped put John Glenn in space into the public consciousness. It took that long to tell that story, it took that long to make a movie that starred black women who weren’t maids or slaves. It took that long to convince studio execs that enough ticket-buyers cared about all that. It’s now earned $131 million, proving that plenty of Americans do care. It was only the Hollywood system that has insisted otherwise. Fences took years to bring to the screen for reasons that may seem different but are related: August Wilson insisted on a black director – and there’s an infuriating dearth of black directors who’ve been nurtured and shepherded by the power-and-money men in Hollywood that they will trust bring a major studio film to life? And finally and similarly, it has taken 89 years of Oscar history to nominate the first black auteur, Barry Jenkins, for Picture, Director, and Writer. That’s 89 years of black filmmakers who never got the opportunities that thousands of their white peers had handed to them.

Am I still talking about this? Yes, I’m still talking about it because I know and you know and Viola Davis knows and Halle Berry knows and Taraji P. Henson knows that the kind of year we’re enjoying right now is probably not coming around again any time soon. Or maybe it will. Maybe Trump’s white supremacist administration and his white nationalist agenda infesting Washington will at last motivate Hollywood to rise above the oppressive leveling effect of the American status quo. Maybe filmmakers will find renewed resolve to prove they can be different from that and stop holding up white stories as this country’s stories of choice.

I do not pretend to know the future. I just know what I’ve seen and what I’ve seen has been pretty damned depressing. It was like pulling teeth for Halle Berry to finally win her Oscar – the only black woman to date to win as lead actress. There was a time when saying that sentence out loud was shocking to people. Now a lot of readers just roll their eyes and say, “There she goes again with the race thing.” It’s just hard not to notice, is all.

To have awarded Beyonce over Adele would have been to honor the growing movement of empowerment trying to reshape America as a better place – and last night it felt like that thrilling impetus was shut down. Instead, Beyonce was handed an award for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” with all the cringing associations the word “urban” now carries. That told her exactly what the powerplayers in the music industry thought of her, no matter what everyone else did.  Poor Adele was visibly horrified that she won both Album and Record of the Year – again – as though her own triumph was somehow attached to shame.

By this point, it’s getting hard to care about anything related to the Oscars. Never before have they seemed so small to me compared to what’s happening in the broader world. There are short films about Syrian refugees, about the global human experience. The foreign language films all tell urgent and meaningful stories from all over the world. These choices are also the Academy’s choices.

The ballots have been sent out today and I expect the results we see two weeks from now will not differ all that much from what we’ve seen transpire throughout this year’s awards race. Maybe one or two surprises (and we hope those surprises make us rejoice and not face-palm). Still, I want to keep reminding you, dear readers, of how and why this year will always stand out from the rest when looking back on Oscar history, and I want to hope that a lot of you will cherish these achievements as they deserve to be.


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