Dear Future Black Oscar Nominees,
I feel for you. I really do. Not because you may or may not have been overlooked by the Academy Awards in the past, but because of how intensely you’ll be scrutinized and second-guessed by the public in the future. No matter how worthy your performance, you will be accused of simply benefitting from affirmative action.
Your place in history will be tainted by the context of the 2016 ceremony.
Before the show even began, the 88th Annual Academy Awards were hijacked by a single issue: the lack of black nominees, particularly in the acting categories. As host, Chris Rock didn't just address the elephant in the room, he beat it into submission. He was so relentless that I'm worried his approach will prove detrimental to the real goal.
Was he funny? Absolutely. Rock had plenty of well-crafted jokes about race and a signature pleasantly-angry delivery that was pretty much the ideal vehicle for the message. But every chance he had to advance the conversation was a detour right back on the same subject. For three and a half hours. At one point he almost managed to diverge from his manifesto – pointing out the progress and luxury of black people even caring about Academy Award nominations. But even that elegant point wasn't enough for him to pivot into new territory. Instead, every punchline, save maybe one about a lime green suit, was racialized. Even the Girl Guides gag was built on the back of white guilt. Focusing so exclusively on race may have been the easy – and even necessary – target, but I can't help but think there will be unintended consequences.
In the last decade or so, it seemed that a point had been reached where black actors who won or were nominated had earned it (at least the same way everyone else does—with expensive studio marketing campaigns). The world was swept away by Lupita N'yongo. Barkhad Abdi stole the show with his rags-to-(temporary)-riches story. Everyone knows Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to be a star (and are relieved at how surprisingly easy his name is to pronounce). We were all charmed by 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. Gabourey Sidibe was a breath of fresh air. I'm not digging into ancient history here – these are just a few of the standouts from the past five years.
I fear that after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and after the way this year’s ceremony unfolded, the protests have taken progress a step backwards. Look at some of the most famous Oscar wins for black actors: Cuba Gooding Jr., Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Forrest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson. They weren't the biggest stars at the time, but they still managed to be front-runner winners based on some semblance of consensus merit. It will be years before another black actor has that same luxury.
The conversation came from a good place. The Academy Awards are a high profile event, and are (among other things) an opportunity to reward excellence and bring light to lesser-seen films and performances. But by the time Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy was pleading for members to vote differently, personal aesthetic taste had been officially usurped by an instruction to enact social change. But is the Oscars the right place to do that? Doesn’t the real problem lie much earlier in the filmmaking process, as Wesley Morris pointed out earlier this year in the New York Times.
The worst part is, it will happen again. There will be another year with no black nominees. Statistically, it's almost unavoidable. What happens then?
Where can the protest honestly go from here? It's horribly unpopular to point out that black actors have been statistically over-represented in acting category wins since 2000 - even after the back-to-back years of no nominees - but it's also true. No one can expect a permanent seat for nominations - this isn't the UN Security Council. Unless of course, Chris Rock was somehow serious when he said the Academy just needed a black category. Otherwise, how on earth can you guarantee “diversity”? Actually, the term diverse is too broad. The hashtag might have been about whiteness, but therein lies another part of the problem.
Overshadowed in all the controversy are the unprecedented achievements of Latino Americans in the past several years. Alphonso Cuarón winning Best Director, back-to-back directing wins by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, three wins in a row by Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematographer – three!! – which just happen to come after Chilean cinematographer Claudia Miranda’s win for Life of Pi. Even Lupita N’yongo is Mexican-born. Yes, black actors matter, but it’s a shame the media isn't paying equal attention to this Latin wave.
It's also worth saying that there were no egregious “black” snubs this year, though as mentioned, that is obviously part of the problem. Creed and Straight Outta Compton were better than expected, not exceptional. Feel free to agree or disagree on that. But Sylvester Stallone didn't really deserve a nomination for his performance, either. It was quite obviously an accumulation of respect and acknowledgement for a character that has had an enormous effect on American pop culture over 40 years. To compare apples-to-apples, Nick Nolte was far more deserving of his supporting performance in Warrior a few years ago, but that film (which is just as good as Creed), was quietly left relegated to its “better than expected” status. Snubbed? Hardly. At least Selma felt like a contender, but even that film’s non-nominations felt more like missed opportunities, which can be counted by the dozen across the board each year.
It might not feel like progress to have no black nominees, but is it perhaps an inevitable part of the process?
Let’s take a quick look into the future. You can be sure that Academy members are already penciling in The Birth of a Nation on their ballot. After premiering at Sundance last month, Nate Parker’s film about the Nat Taylor slave rebellion (which he both directs and stars in) already carries the weight of being the Great Black Oscar Hope. Months before seeing the film, every Oscar voter has implicitly been challenged by the president of their academy to vote for – or, by default, against – that film.
And they probably will give it some love. Because living through another three-and-a-half hour televised lecture is not high on anyone’s to-do list. The question is, will the film be deserving? Or will it be just good enough to meet requirements? Unfortunately for Nate Parker and you, other black actors and filmmakers destined to be nominees, we may never really know.