Every year it seems that people with an eye on the award season await with somewhat bated breath as the Academy Awards nominations are made, months before the Oscars actually take place. Each year our minds sift through the lost and found, in search of those Black films whose quality can not be assailed as anything other than high quality offerings. Each year, we search the list of nominees for signs of a nominee in whom we have something in common, be it race, gender or country of origin.
Each year millions of people of African descent who actually still give a damn about the Oscars are largely disappointed in the outcome for one of several reasons; the complete exclusions of films starring or directed by Black folks, the consternation at the practice of passing over Black actors/actresses who turned in otherworldly performances (Denzel Washington in Malcolm X and Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It?) in favor of less poignant or impactful performances by their White counterparts.
The last phenomenon has something to do with the types of roles that people of African descent have won for. Denzel Washington won the Oscar for the Oscar for playing a homicidal crooked cop in Training Day, Mo’Nique won her Oscar as a uber-selfish and abusive mother in Precious while Halle Berry won an Oscar for playing the role of a woman who was sleeping with her husband’s executioner. But the more we cry conspiracy, even going so far as mentioning the great Hattie McDaniels in Gone with the Wind as an example of Hollywood’s promotion of stereotypical, demeaning roles, while making it a habit to sporadically recognize but seldom reward the best cinematic works of actors and directors of the African diaspora.
This year was more of the same.
Yes, many black cinema-philes were elated to see Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a look into the inner workings of the MLK led March on Selma in 1965, but there were noticeable absences. This year’s award for Best Picture went to Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Selma, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song, and Grateful of Beyond the Lights, which garnered a nomination for Diane Warren, were the only films starring a lead of, or directed by, a person of African descent at the Oscars.
To add to the racial-liciousness of the entire post Oscar conversation, as part of his shtick, host Neil Patrick Harris asked Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer to assist him in “guarding” over a box that contained his predictions for the Oscars that he alleges had been under lock and key since last Thursday. While there’s nothing wrong with including a sister in the act, there was something a bit off about a Black woman who won her trophy for playing a maid in The Help assisting the blonde-haired Patrick. Oh, did I neglect to mention that Spencer won her award for playing a somewhat stereotypical role of a maid to back in 2012 for Best Supporting Actress? My bad. It’s just hard to believe that no one stopped him and said ‘With the racial sensitivity of this country being as high as it is, do you think this could possibly be misconstrued?” and “Is it worth the risk?” But he did it anyway and I was just like “Mmmmm…no” the whole time.
But there was some solace found in the brutally honest acceptance speech by Common and John Legend, as they received the Best Original Song award for “Glory” from “Selma.” As John Legend spoke about the current incarceration rate for Black males in America being higher than the total number of Black men in slavery in 1850. During his speech, the crowd became deathly silent. I joked that it was “race pissing on cotton” silent on Facebook. However, as the light of the day flooded my bedroom window, I still couldn’t discern whether the silence was out of respect, out of ignorance, or if the crowd was just stunned into silence at the words and information that Legend had communicated.
Then, just when things couldn’t get any more awkward in this arena of pseudo-progressiveness, we had Patricia Arquette win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood and give Black folks a little backhand in her acceptance speech. As she hurriedly thanked her cast, crew, friends, family, Arquette speedily segued to an abbreviated diatribe about equal pay for women in Hollywood saying “We have fought for everybody else's equal rights. It's our time to have gender equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” The crowd roared its approval, the very same crowd that was as silent as a mummy’s crypt when Legend and Common gave their acceptance speech. There was also the feeling that, once again, a White person usurped and perverted something that was supposed to be about us. We know what she meant to say, but she could have steered completely clear of the "We've fought for everyone else's rights" verbiage. She really could have and, because she didn't, she needless offended scores of people of African descent in America.
Today, the Democrats, including President Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, are barking their approval of Arquette’s words. But to me it seemed like she was speaking sideways to the legacy of the Black struggle, as if it were far off in the past instead of as recent as two seconds ago. And when she said “We fought…” one couldn’t help wonder who the hell she was talking about. It was political grandstanding at the expense of the African-American worldview.
In an all too familiar historic precedence, a White woman was throwing brothers under the bus.
And so we scan the trade publications and film magazines in search of the next Black contender for the 88th Academy Awards upon which to hang our collective hopes, and brace ourselves for the disappointment that will assuredly arise when we place so much energy in earning approval from a White majority no matter how liberal or progressive-minded the majority may believe it is. Or we can stop caring about what they think altogether. Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights is indicative of a film that deserved to be recognized by the Oscars, but was not, and the reason it wasn’t selected had little to do with the quality of the film. Please, don't even get us started on Amma Assante's Belle.
But many of us will play this little Academy Awards love dance again next year anyway.