Last night’s Golden Globes may be considered a big night for the slavery epic 12 Years a Slave, which took home the award for best motion picture, drama. But it was not a big night for the film’s stars, director or frankly anyone else who happened to be black and in the room that evening.
Despite nominations in a number of major categories, black artists were shut out through the awards show. Making it particularly disappointing for many viewers is the fact that thanks to the box office and critical success of films like Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, many were heralding 2013 as a banner year for black cinema.
Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba were both nominated in the best actor category for their lead roles in 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Lupita Nyong’o was nominated in the best supporting actress category for her role in 12 Years a Slave, and Barkhad Abdi was nominated in the best supporting actor category for his performance in Captain Phillips. Kerry Washington was nominated for her role as Olivia Pope in Scandal, while Don Cheadle was nominated for his role in the series House of Lies. Steve McQueen was nominated for best director for 12 Years a Slave, while John Ridley, who penned the film’s screenplay, also received a nomination.
The disappointment online was palpable. High-profile African Americans revealed their increasing displeasure on Twitter throughout the evening. MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid tweeted “@TheReidReport If the mark of a great film is that it demands that you never, ever forget it, 12 Years a Slave should have swept tonight. #GoldenGlobes”
Following Lupita Nyong’o’s loss, PBS’s Gwen Ifill tweeted: “Wait. @Lupita_Nyongo was dissed?”
While the win of 12 Years a Slave is significant, one award out of 26 is ultimately not.
The concern about the lack of diversity among this year’s winners was not limited to African Americans in media. Rachel Sklar, a prominent writer and advocate for gender diversity in Silicon Valley, tweeted the following exchange with Alex Leo, who works for Newsweek:
“@thelist @rachelsklar (returning from an ice cream run): “What’d I miss?” @AlexMLeo “Nothing. White men won some awards.”
Both women are white.
So if 12 Years a Slave ultimately won the night’s major award, is there a legitimate reason for critics of color, and others, to be concerned?
In a word: absolutely.
While many have argued that 2013 turned out to be one of the strongest years for leading men in recent memory, with a number of compelling best actor performances across the spectrum, there is not a self-respecting critic on the planet who would pretend that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in American Hustle and Lupita Nyong’o’s performance were in the same league. And I say that as a Jennifer Lawrence fan. Had Nyong’o won last night it is possible that there would have been less overall disappointment with how the evening turned out. But her loss struck many—if not all—except perhaps Lawrence’s friends and family, as such an egregious snub that it set an uncomfortable tone for the rest of the night.
Furthermore, having seen both films (and being personally partial to crime capers) I must say that the fact that American Hustle is being positioned as on par with 12 Years a Slave is, to put it mildly, perplexing. One is moderately entertaining. The other is cinematically extraordinary. One will be remembered as an important work 20 years from now. The other may not be remembered at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t consider 12 Years a Slave easy to watch, or the definition of a fun night out. But it is a masterpiece. For that reason, I hope Anna Holmes, founder of the women’s site Jezebel, ends up being right.
She tweeted, ”i think so too MT @Geniusbastard: I think 12 Years A Slave will do better on Oscar night. Call me an optimist. HFPA [Hollywood Foreign Press Association] are weirdos.”
Of course it is worth noting that the Golden Globes are not always a crystal ball when it comes to foreshadowing Oscar winners. But after the Globes’ outcomes, I can’t help bracing myself for a repeat of 1986. That was the year that The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and failed to win any.
Of course, in 1986, the Academy didn’t have to worry about the wrath of social media, or more specifically the wrath of black Twitter. As Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast tweeted after 12 Years a Slave was named best motion picture:
@jbouie “And the Hollywood Foreign Press breathes a quiet sigh as it narrowly escapes the wrath of #blacktwitter.”
But some, including radio host Al Butler, wondered aloud if sometimes we as African Americans get too upset about the wrong things, tweeting, @ALBDamn “Before y’all start, I loved #12YearsASlave and I’m not shading the movie, just how we sometimes overreact to certain achievements #Obama.”
He’s right that a race for best picture may not be as important as a race for the presidency, but part of why President Obama was able to win the presidency in the first place was because how black Americans were depicted in media had evolved enough so that certain white Americans, who may have once been afraid to vote for someone who looked like Obama, no longer were. Karl Rove, the GOP political operative, even credited The Cosby Show with President Obama’s election. So moments like this matter. But how much weight we as black people place in how much these moments matter is something we should continue to reflect on, especially in the Age of Obama.
As managing editor of The Root Lyne Pitts concluded following the Golden Globes ceremony, “If we keep looking to the mainstream for our validation we will continue to be disappointed.”
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.