As we gear up for the Academy Awards, filmmaker and author Nelson George analyzes the way African Americans are depicted on screen in the New York Times, and he isn’t satisfied with what he’s found.
The four films noted here are contenders for a slew of major Oscars: “Django Unchained,“ “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Flight” and “Lincoln.” In the year America gave its first black president a second term, some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films, all by white directors, dealt with black-white race relations or revolved around black characters, which is rare. For the first time in recent memory race is central to several Oscar conversations. But the black characters’ humanity is hit or miss. These films raise the age-old question of whether white filmmakers are ready to grant black characters agency in their own screen lives.
Looking at these Oscar-nominated films, we should ask: Are black characters given a real back story and real-world motivations? Are they agents of their own destiny or just foils for white characters? Are they too noble to be real? Are they too ghetto to be flesh and blood? Do any of these characters point to a way forward?
First a bit of context: Throughout the early decades of the post-civil-rights era black people tended to view their image in media, particularly in movies, through a prism of “positive” or “negative.” These simplistic terms served a kind of Rorschach test of images that could make black folks comfortable or uncomfortable. Denzel Washington as a strong-willed, heroic Union soldier in “Glory”(1989) was considered positive. Denzel Washington as a crooked Los Angeles cop in “Training Day” (2001) was negative. He won Oscars for both, but his corrupt cop was polarizing, since it implicated black treachery, with white indifference, in urban crime.
Read Nelson George’s entire piece at the New York Times.
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