White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.


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