As remote as 2015 now feels, it’s hard to forget, as the award season rolls around again, the groundswell caused by the hashtag that became the David to Hollywood’s Goliath.
After the Academy Award nominations in February 2016 essentially shut out people of color in several categories two years in a row, social media erupted within minutes with tweets and posts featuring the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Try as the academy and its members may have to quell the criticism, it became a mainstay throughout the award season. The industry's long-standing lack of diversity in casting, producing and the academy—its membership and voting practices—was brought to light, with 13 characters, no less.
To add some context, let’s look at the numbers. Hollywood distributed over 300 films in limited and wide release in 2015. Of those films, only nine (non-foreign language) featured people of color in leading roles. There were 14 films featuring people of color in an ensemble cast.
Standout performances by Will Smith in Concussion, David Oyelowo in Captive, and amazing performances by Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation were simply overlooked by the academy. And let's not forget Creed, Ryan Coogler's sophomore project. The film Coogler wrote and directed was also omitted except for its only white cast member, Sylvester Stallone, who received a nomination for best actor in a supporting role. It was a snubbing most foul.
In my opinion, the only proof of Hollywood’s drift from de rigueur was casting Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the reboot of Fantastic Four. And in all fairness, I'm OK with forgetting that film.
But what a difference a year makes. 2016 was a banner year for blacks in film, both in front of and behind the lens. From urban comedy, action, animation and drama, actors of color made an impact that year in both the volume of films released and in their performances.
Out of the 184 films released last year, 15 of those films (non-foreign language) feature people of color in leading roles, with an additional nine films featuring people of color in an ensemble cast.
2016 has already yielded film-festival darlings and critical gems. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation won the Audience and Grand Jury prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, has critics and audiences swooning across the country with buzz for best supporting actor and actress nods for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris respectively, as well as best director and adapted screenplay noms for Jenkins.
December has three films generating award speculation. Hidden Figures, the story of the female African-American mathematicians who helped get the United States to the moon, stars Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, as well as Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson and singer Janelle Monáe; it also features original music by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams. Collateral Beauty is Will Smith’s annual Christmas offering. Smith plays a grief-stricken executive who writes letters to concepts like Love and Death and gets responses. Last, we have Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson's stage play, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising their onstage roles in this feature directed by Washington. If buzz around this film comes to fruition, look for best acting nods for Washington and Davis, best supporting actor for Mykelti Williamson and also best director for Washington.
Now, I’m not implying that a hashtag made Hollywood get off its collective ass (and wallet) for this increase to occur; I’m not saying that at all. After all, these films were in the making long before the shaming that occurred last year. But if a hashtag like #OscarsSoWhite can push the conversation forward, ushering in an increase in opportunities and resulting in the caliber of films and performances that we saw in 2016, then a little #BlackMoviesMatter is all right in my book.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Edward Adams is a writer and film critic based in Atlanta. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.