If you haven’t noticed the steam rising from the Twitter icon on your iPhone, then you may not be aware that once again, the Oscars have been declared #SoWhite. Typically, when this ever-so-shocking event occurs, the narrative dovetails into two discussions:
Why do black people want acknowledgment from “these” awards, and why don’t artists show up at black award shows?
Answer: Because total recognition in your field is better than niche recognition.
No convoluted Hotepian logic trumps the truth.
How exactly can we shift the makeup of the various creative-arts academies from “#SoWhite” to “#AWellMixedPaletteThatReflectsTheRacialAndCulturalDiversityOfAmerica”?
Answer: This is a tougher nut to crack. Statistically, we don’t have the numbers or influence. There are simply not enough of us in the world of filmmaking telling our stories.
There are more than 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and most of them aren’t high-profile actors and directors. There are professional writers, editors, makeup artists, cinematographers, set designers, lighting technicians and more. These people vote. These people contribute. And nowhere near enough of them are black. The technical side of filmmaking is probably whiter than a chicken breast seasoned with only table salt.
We can’t all play the outfield like Ken Griffey Jr. Some of us should try to be catchers or third basemen, because there’s nothing wrong with strong thighs. It would be awesome if some of those young women duping society via YouTube makeup tutorials got the support and encouragement to work in film. Likewise, if someone pushed your cousin Terry to stop lining his closet with egg cartons and find other work in sound production besides recording his mixtape.
In addition to those who need support from the fringes, there are plenty of young black filmmakers coming out of the major film academies at UCLA, USC, NYU and AFI who need both human and financial support and opportunities to tell their stories at a feature-length level. Making films ain’t easy, and it ain’t cheap.
While people are upset about the snubs for Creed, Concussion, Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation, the types of stories that these films represent reveal the issue with what is deemed a bankable black narrative.
We have one franchise film, one Will Smith-forcing-his-hero-narrative-down-our-throats-again film, a hip-hop biopic and, of course, an African-child-as-soldier film. Seriously, if you peruse the past 30 years of Oscar nominees, the only nonslave, non-civil-rights black drama nominated is Beasts of the Southern Wild.
No regular-ass drama-filled s—t.
I’m sure that studios are aware that black people have done s—t, too.
And when I say “s—t,” I mean non-massa-, non-kingpin-, non-warlord-related s—t.
Black people have done mundane s—t; historically relevant s—t; mildly interesting s—t; sexually ambiguous s—t; daring-business s—t; domestic-homemaker s—t; s—t en español; science fiction, space-travel Buzz Lightyear s—t; weird, creepy-uncle s—t; and uplifting-ass, harmonizing s—t.
You would never think that black people have personal struggles with their families or sexuality or their businesses, or even that black people have a history outside of slavery. To be honest, a black historical drama doesn’t even have to be accurate. There are at least two or three shows or films released every year involving white people and their fascination with elves and trolls. We’ve earned ours.
If they can have that, can I have a movie about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s secret life as a Voodoo shaman, starring Idris Elba? He’ll blow some sort of bewitched powder on French colonialists and deal with the early drama of #TeamLightSkinned and #DarkSkinned. It’ll be great.
One of the biggest lies about why studios don’t greenlight black dramas is that they are wary of the financial return. The truth is, Academy Award-nominated dramas typically don’t make a significant amount of money, anyway, until they’re nominated. If it were about money, then the whole cast of Furious 7 would be picketing academy headquarters right now. Most academy dramas are passion projects brought to studios by filmmakers, but far too often, the studios can’t muster a passionate check for our stories.
Cate Blanchett, who is undoubtedly a dope actress, is nominated for best actress for playing the titular Carol, a woman with bi-curious proclivities in the 1950s. Well, that’s all fine and good. But could I take a tale called Keisha, about my gay aunt and her mink scarf, into a studio and come out with a check? Probably not.
The microscope that hovers over white narratives scanning for dramas bankable enough for Hollywood is laughably close in comparison with the Epic of Gilgamesh-level stakes required for our films to be supposedly bankable. I’d like to be hopeful and think that investment into our own filmmaking communities, in both craft and art, will create a generation of African-American filmmakers who have the wherewithal and knowledge to make content with or without the powers that be. But until Jennifer Lawrence stops getting nominated for an Academy Award for playing the same young, hardscrabble white lady with a can-do attitude in a film adapted from an article that director David O. Russell found in a newspaper in the ’70s, I’ll hedge my bets.
Brandon Harrison lives in New York City and has Hollywood stories that rival those of Rick James. He prides himself on staying righteous and knowing more about basketball than you do. Follow him on Twitter.