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.)
The black films that did make it to the multiplex were heavy on gunplay — The Book of Eli, Takers, Brooklyn's Finest — or slapstick — Death at a Funeral, Just Wright, Our Family Wedding. (And of course, Tyler Perry continued his quest for world domination, releasing Why Did I Get Married, Too and the highly anticipated but ultimately disappointing For Colored Girls.)
With mainstream films, black folks seemed to take a giant step backward. Instead, as the Times noted, this was the year of the white working class, from The Town to The Fighter to Winter's Bone. All worthy films, wonderful films, films that I very much enjoyed. But as a movie junkie dating from way back, I find myself feeling increasingly disillusioned by today's film fare.
I long for more inclusion at all levels, for films that truly reflect the multicolored reality of American society, for films that move us out of the BFF role and into leading roles for which race is a part of the picture, but not the whole reality. (Anthony Mackie in last year's Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker comes to mind.) Why not have Zoe Saldana, a trained ballet dancer, take the lead instead of Natalie Portman? Then we would have had a real Black Swan.
Still, even with better representation of colored folks in mainstream films, there will always be a need for black-focused films that reflect our lives back to us. I'm missing the '80s and the '90s, when Spike Lee delighted in provoking and outraging us, when we could catch glimpses of our boho selves in Love Jones or our buppie selves in The Best Man. I want to see more films showcasing black female directors, like Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball or Kasi Lemmons' breathtakingly beautiful Eve's Bayou or Julie Dash's mesmerizing Daughters of the Dust.
But I take heart in the fact that, at Sundance this year, there was an unprecedented number of black-themed and black-directed films, with about 30 African-American films or filmmakers represented at the famed festival. So I'll be waiting, and watching, for Dee Rees' Pariah, Alrick Brown's Kinyarwanda and Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road. Waiting, watching — and hoping.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.