Of the 10 films vying for the Best Picture Oscar next month, three are led by African-American actors — with nary a shackle or bullwhip anywhere on the screen.
After two years of Academy Award nominees whiter than a New England nor’easter in February, black artists will compete in every major category this year, with multiple nominations for best picture nominees “Moonlight,” “Fences,” and “Hidden Figures.” Yet it’s not just the recognition of African-American talent on screen and off that should also be widely celebrated, but the diversity of the nominated films — a gay love story, a wrenching family drama, and an overlooked but vital piece of NASA history. These productions show the expansive range of the black experience beyond slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and so-called hood movies.
Like the society it reflects, Hollywood tilts toward narrow views of black lives, yet it is also always most concerned with what sells. After “12 Years a Slave” won a fistful of Oscars in 2014, studios eager for the next great slave epic fought for the rights to “The Birth of a Nation,” about Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. Nate Parker, its star and filmmaker, emerged from the Sundance Film Festival last year with a $17.5 million deal, the largest in the event’s history. Parker’s name was expected to dominate this year’s Oscar nominations.
The film stiffed. Publicity was upended by Parker’s off-putting answers when asked about a 1999 rape charge, for which he was acquitted in 2001. More tellingly, audiences seemed wary of yet another slave story. There was a sense, especially among some African-Americans, that their culture and experiences should not be reduced time and again on film to subjugation and brutalized black bodies.
As “The Birth of a Nation” was failing, “Moonlight,” an unexpected love story, arrived in theaters and became one of the year’s best films. Its lead character is a young black gay male whose sole function isn’t to be a sassy comic foil for a white heroine. (In fact, there are no white characters in the movie.)
In “Fences,” racism skulks around the edges of this film version of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but there’s also a universal quality about how lost dreams can corrode even a well-meaning heart. It’s one of the few recent mainstream films to consider the fragility of family dynamics from a black perspective, something at which Wilson excelled. “Hidden Figures” takes an even greater leap with black women at NASA, whose mathematical genius helped put John Glenn in space in 1962. Fighting gender stereotypes is as much a plot line here as race; so often, it’s forgotten that women of color also battle sexism.
Still, while it’s encouraging to see African-Americans earning broader recognition for critically acclaimed work, no three movies can provide full representation of diversity. April Reign, managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com and creator of #OscarsSoWhite, the Twitter hashtag launched in 2015 when no people of color received major nominations, told the Los Angeles Times, “#OscarsSoWhite is about the inclusion of all marginalized communities, both in front of and behind the camera, throughout the entertainment industry.”
Reign is correct, and Hollywood executives and Academy voters shouldn’t congratulate themselves too much. Inclusion means opening up the ranks of studio executives, directors, and producers, not just actors and actresses . Yet it also must mean the encouragement and development of stories, both historical and contemporary, communicating depth and diversity in subject matter. With the commercial and critical success of these films certain to be bolstered by their Academy Award nominations, Hollywood may finally embrace the fact that, in communities of color, there are so many more stories to tell. If Hollywood sees that, maybe the rest of the country will, too.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.