Race in the Oscar Race

It’s not news that there’s a significant lack of diversity at the Academy Awards. While recent attempts have been made to include the presence of women and minorities among the members themselves, the movies that garner Oscar buzz each year are frequently dominated with white men—in front of and behind the camera. Inevitably, some blogger or columnist will point out several great films or performances that have been overlooked that could have widened the Oscar’s diversity, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a race issue. After all, there are tons of posts on indie or art house films that are also out of Oscar’s view.

Even with an increase in the number of nominations for Best Picture, there is still a “certain” type of film that gets Oscar attention. If the bulk of films made to be marketed toward the African-American audience are comedies, rom-coms or action films, they don’t have any more shot of attracting the Academy’s eye than most films directed by Christopher Columbus or Sam Raimi. (And I won’t even start on the lack of films to the Asian or Hispanic audiences.) To that end it doesn’t surprise me that Tyler Perry hasn’t ever been recognized by the Academy, but how is it possible that Spike Lee’s only feature nomination is for writing (his other is for a documentary)? John Singleton’s early promise (not only the first African-American director to ever get a nomination, but also the youngest) may have faded, but with only a handful of credits to his name, it seems more that he has trouble getting films made.

So maybe the question isn’t why is there no diversity among the Oscar nominees more than it is where are the strong caliber, high quality (let’s call them what they are) “Oscar bait” pictures that have a wider pigment spectrum than porcelain to ecru? Why hasn’t a single one of August Wilson’s plays yet been filmed? Where is Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay credit? Won’t audiences of all races go to see a great film despite “who” the film is about?

Which brings us to 2013. Late in the summer, it seemed there were actually two African-American films starting to generate Oscar buzz: Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Fruitvale Station. Both had their fans and critics, but both  generally received praise from critics. At the time, I thought: This will be interesting and perhaps a test. Would the Academy make room for both these films? Or would the celebrity-centric Butler overshadow the smaller and  (arguably) better Fruitvale? But before long, another film entered the picture that overshadowed both (as well as many others). Once 12 Years a Slave came on the scene, the spotlight dimmed on The Butler and Fruitvale has essentially been vanquished from the Oscar conversation. Both films are essentially holding on to hopes for a Supporting Actress nod at most.

Interestingly enough, of these three films, 12 Years and The Butler are the ones most rooted in an “us” vs. “them” scenario. Dealing, respectively, with the most horrendous aspect of racial divide in this country and the course of the Civil Rights movement, these films are about disparity. It is the movie seemingly about to be ignored by the Academy, Fruitvale, that shows a racial harmony throughout much of the film (it’s one of the aspects of the film that makes the climax even more horrible from a storytelling point of view). Is the real problem that Oscar can’t deal with an integrated Hollywood?

Thank goodness for Shonda Rhimes, whose television shows have continually broken down barriers. Her characters (heroic or flawed) come in all shapes, sizes and colors; straight, gay and bi; interracial couples. And it’s created enough of an impact that it’s being seen outside the borders of Shondaland (her production company). Television currently has a strong, black female as the lead in two different series with multiracial supporting casts (Sleepy Hollow and Rhimes’ Scandal). In neither show does the character’s race have anything to do with the plot and in one, her gender has absolutely no baring to the character. Let’s hope this trend continues and eventually makes its way from the small screen to the silver one.

The Oscar nominee ballots are in the hands of the Academy now. It’s only a matter of time before we see their true colors. In many a year, it could be argued (weakly or not) that the best were chosen and there just happened to be no diversity among the nominees. That cannot be said of this year. Show us what you’re made of, Academy.

As an epilogue, if you add Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to the other films mentioned above, they make a fascinating witness of the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. I’d highly encourage you to watch them, perhaps in order. They show, without question: we’ve come so far, but still have a long way to go.
12 Years a Slave
The Butler
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Fruitvale Station


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