Oscar season is upon us.
On Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor what it deems to be the best films of 2016 during the 89th Academy Awards. After two years of #OscarsSoWhite, this year we have a record six black acting nominees, three films with predominantly black casts nominated for best picture and four films with black directors nominated for best documentary.
This is a historic year, but I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm about black folks winning Academy Awards. While winning the coveted Oscar is often considered the high mark of one’s career, there are many examples of when the academy failed to recognize the best film made in a given year or even the best actor or actress nominated.
I will never forgive the academy for failing to nominate Do the Right Thing for best picture. That year the Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy. (Yes, you read that right: Driving Miss Daisy.) And who could forget the year that Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman over the transfixing Denzel Washington as Malcolm X? Further, the Oscars have a history of recognizing films like Dances With Wolves, The Blind Side and The Help that place a white person as the moral center of a film about people of color.
I am also wary of placing too much weight on the white assessment of black expression. This is something that happens often during Black History Month.
When we need the approval and validation of the dominant group in order for us to see our own work as valuable, we engage in a vicious form of internalized racism—one that centers whiteness even as we engage in the subversive work of expressing black brilliance.
We are consistently outraged when white institutions do what they were created to do and marginalize people of color; yet we constantly demean and ghettoize the NAACP Image Awards, the BET Awards, and other spaces that have historically made room for and celebrated black excellence. When you place more worth on white access and recognition than you do on black affirmation, you participate in your own oppression. We need to support, protect and prioritize those spaces that celebrate our blackness—not award shows that tokenize our culture.
Yet, recognized by the academy or not, we need black films that will challenge the racial status quo and speak to the lived experience of those who are part of the African Diaspora. Therefore, instead of discussing black films that have received Oscar attention, I want to highlight black art that did not receive recognition from the academy but was brilliant nevertheless.
1. Creed (2015)
There is a scene in Ryan Coogler’s Creed that makes my allergies act up.
In the central training montage, Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, is running the streets of Philadelphia, preparing for his fight with the heavyweight champion of the world. As he runs, the film converts the frame to slow motion as young black men from the neighborhood circle him, riding all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles.
This scene is so moving because it speaks to community. It speaks to the truth that I’ve experienced many times in my life: It reminds me that there are people from my community who believe in me; that support me. In that moment, as the bikes swirled around Creed, he was reminded that he was surrounded by a host of witnesses. They supported him. They would push him. They loved him.
This film was not recognized by the academy except for Sylvester Stallone’s nomination for best supporting actor. The black lead actor, black director and black supporting actress were all brilliant, but not recognized.
2. Dutchman (1966)
This is a film based on a brilliant play by Amiri Baraka and stars Al Freeman Jr. In it, a black man meets a white woman on a train, and a problematic dialogue that explores the anxiety of being a black man in America ensues.
I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, it shows the danger posed by white women who fetishize black masculinity. It is the ultimate artistic embodiment of a sentiment expressed by many a black mother or grandmother: “You need to leave those white women alone.”
3. Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Before #OscarsSoWhite became a trending topic on Twitter, Hollywood Shuffle told the story of black actors and actresses who were consistently typecast into the roles of pimps, prostitutes, hustlers and slaves.
It’s been 30 years since the film was released, but the uncomfortable truths expressed in the film about the lack of diversity and the covert racism of studio executives remain as accurate as ever.
4. Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Julie Dash’s lyrical, meditative period piece set in 1902 about a black family’s pending migration from coastal Georgia to America’s mainland tells its story from the perspective of black women. It has a short running time, but the story is epic in scope and emotion.
It is a movie that requires patience to watch but sticks with the viewer long after the credits have run.
5. Mississippi Damned (2009)
Tina Mabry’s autobiographical examination of poverty, abuse and hope is at once devastating and awe-inspiring. The “damned” are those whose lives seem entrapped by a cycle of poverty so vicious that talk of escaping it is met with disdain. The direction is assured, and Tessa Thompson gives a standout performance as Kari Peterson.
The film is, at times, unsettling, but so are the social forces that placed these characters in situations wherein all hope seems lost and obligations are entrapping.
This year the academy will almost certainly award Denzel Washington the Oscar for best actor, and Viola Davis is a lock for best supporting actress. While we should celebrate their wins, I am reminded of the words W.E.B. Du Bois wrote to eulogize Carter G. Woodson: “No white university ever recognized his work; no white scientific society ever honored him. Perhaps this was his greatest honor.”
It’s nice to be recognized, but if white institutions fail to appreciate the work of black folks, we should not be outraged. We should consider it an honor.