Why No Black Films Were Nominated
Yes, a decade-long winning streak for black folks at the Oscars came to an end this year. But this doesn't signal a trend or anything nefarious -- it just means that this was no banner year for black film.
Black people aren't being robbed this year at the Oscars. If there was a year not to have been robbed at the Academy Awards, this was the year. 2010-2011 was the year of the not-very-good black movie (For Colored Girls) and the almost, but not quite, good-enough black movie (Night Catches Us). The mere presence of black folks on the screen, the mere presence of a "serious" black film -- i.e., with lots of angst and scenery chewing -- doesn't make it worthy of an award. The fact that a few black actors and actresses got put to work, that a black director was behind the camera, does not mean that little gold men should be handed out come award season.
Just because a film aspires to be art doesn't make it art. And sometimes, aspiring to be art gets in the way of good storytelling, weighing the movie down with noble intentions, heavy-handed symbolism and ponderous pretension. So this year, no Spike Lee-esque outrage is warranted at the exclusion of, say, Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls. This is not 1990, when the seminal Do the Right Thing got passed over by the Academy for a best picture nomination and the treacly Driving Miss Daisy won, after which Lee famously declared, "We wuz robbed."
And he was right. He was robbed. So were Denzel Washington, when he failed to win for his powerhouse portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in The Hurricane, and a host of other black actors, writers and directors over the Academy's 83-year history. But this year? Not so much.
It's certainly true, as New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott observe, that "the whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding." (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld, who is reportedly of partial African descent, will be the only person of color represented among the actors nominated this year.)
The bigger issue, of course, is that precious few black films -- films made by us, for us -- made it into the public sphere over the past year. Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton's moody take on the fallout of the Black Panthers in 1976 Philly, was a noble effort that made it into a handful of theaters -- but as far as storytelling goes, it was a bit of a snooze, plodding along until it thudded to an unsatisfactory ending.
Frankie & Alice earned Halle Berry a Golden Globe nod this year for her turn as stripper suffering from multiple personality disorder -- but who saw it? I don't know anyone who did. Trying to find a screening of the film is an exercise in frustration. (Full disclosure: I have yet to see Mooz-lum, a film with which my colleague, Nsenga Burton, is much enamored, but I've yet to speak to anyone else who liked it. Most concur with the Village Voice's assessment of it: "Solemn, unsubtle, and terminally self-conscious." It was screened in 17 theaters as of Feb. 20.)