Moving On From #OscarsSoWhite

(Courtesy of Lincolnblues via Flickr/Creative Commons

A little less than a year ago, soon after the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced, #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter. None of the 20 nominees in four acting categories were people of color.

One week later, the University of Southern California released a study that found an “epidemic of invisibility” of diversity across the board not only at the Oscars, but in all of Hollywood. NPR suggested a revision to the trending hashtag: #HollywoodSoWhite. The analysis looked at more than 21,000 characters and backstage workers from over 400 films and TV shows released in the 2014-2015 season. The results showed that just 33.5 percent of speaking characters were female, and even fewer speaking characters were from non-white backgrounds, 28.3 percent.

In a push for diversity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (where the term “Academy Awards” comes from) sent invitations to 683 actors, directors, cinematographers, and others throughout the movie-making industry to become new voting members of the institution. Of those who accepted the invitation, 46 percent were female and 41 percent were persons of color. Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, and Emma Watson were among them. The overall Academy membership remains at 27 percent female, and 11 percent POC, however. In the Academy’s New Membership Announcement, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs called for Hollywood to “open its doors wider, and create opportunities for anyone interested in working in this incredible and storied industry.”

It seems that at least some of Hollywood caught the drift. Films released in the Oscar-contending movie release season since late 2016 have featured much higher representation and inclusion of women and actors of color. As the Oscar nominations rolled out last week, this became even clearer: 7 of the 20 acting nominees are non-white (one for Best Actor, one for Best Actress, two for Best Supporting Actor, and three for Best Supporting Actress). While I am not asserting that this in any way calls for an exclamation of “yay! the inclusion drought is over!,” this is clearly a huge improvement from one year to the next.

One does not only have to look to the names that will be read off on Feb. 26; just look at the movies in theaters right now. One of the films Oscar-nominated films released last fall, Loving, tells the story of the couple that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage through the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, a suitably named lawsuit. Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving grew up in poor, Southern families, both unlikely figures to become so central to civil rights history. Negga and Edgerton provide a deeply subtle yet passionate portrayal of the Lovings’ fight for their “right to be let alone.”

Hidden Figures, which also takes place in segregated Virginia, tells the story of the overlooked portion of NASA and aerospace travel history–the black (and white) women who worked as ‘computers’ in the American side of the Space Race, calculating and analyzing huge amounts of data every minute. The three main scientists and mathematicians–Katherine Johnson, née Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)–truly do overcome all forms of discrimination, subjugation, and insults while each trying to get their offices out of the segregated and distant “West Area Computers” building to have a seat at the same table as the white men who led NASA.

Not only do the women achieve promotions to positions never-before held by women of color; they are also the first women of any race to hold them. Hidden Figures is pure empowerment cinema; a feel-good film that makes anyone who sees it feel the need to do more when it comes to working past barriers of diversity and integration. It is such required viewing that numerous people across the country have started GoFundMe’s to give young girls, especially black girls, the chance to see it for free.

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and directed by Washington himself, is a story of missed opportunity forced onto a Pittsburgh waste collector by the “color line” in Major League Baseball, which excluded blacks from playing in major and minor leagues until the 1940s. Troy Maxson (Washington), feeling stuck in a working class life, makes several irrevocable decisions that affect his relationship with his family members–effectively building fences between them.

The fact that the three previous films each take place in 1950s and 1960s America is an interesting contrast to the white nostalgia presented in La La Land – the two main characters (played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) express a desire to return to old Hollywood and old “pure” Jazz as opposed to their present-day realities, without recognition of the social context for those phenomena.

Moonlight and Lion, the latter starring Dev Patel, are the two films nominated for Best Picture with non-white actors in leading roles set in the present-day. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe bridge between two POC-led films, starring in both Moonlight and in supporting roles in Hidden Figures. Ali plays a crack dealer caught between seeking a life free of drugs and making a living, and Monáe his girlfriend in Moonlight; Monáe is an aspiring engineer at NASA, and Ali a military officer who falls for Taraji P. Henson’s character in Hidden Figures. Both films involve only actors of color in the leading roles; Moonlight is directed by Barry Jenkins, a newcomer now nominated for Best Director.

We will have to see at the Academy Awards ceremony, hosted this year by Jimmy Kimmel, how much the increased inclusion of actors of color and stories of persons of color in this years’ major film releases is rewarded with top awards, and whether it will remain a top priority for Hollywood executives in years to come. If this season’s preceding awards shows–like the Golden Globes where Moonlight took home the top prize and Viola Davis another (not to mention the recognition Atlanta received), and the Screen Actors Guild Awards where Hidden Figures, Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, and Viola Davis won big, are any indication–there’s a whole lot of appreciation of black excellence just around the bend.

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