Over the last few weeks, since the Golden Globes nominations, it seems everyone is talking about how great a year it’s been for black filmmakers and actors. The year 2013 saw a great many commercial successes geared towards and helmed by African Americans. This in itself wasn’t news, but these films were accompanied by a number of critically favorable and sometimes downright prestigious films also about and/or by African Americans (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years a Slave). This started a discussion going into the Academy Awards that this may be the year for African Americans in film. And while I really do hate raining on a parade, I’m going to.
For starters, look at the three African Americans actors nominated for Academy Awards this year. We’ve got two slaves and a Somali pirate. Sure, the presence of three African American actors in the nomination pool is good, considering how overwhelmingly white the Oscars traditionally are, but it paints a sad picture of what kind of roles will get you noticed by the Academy.
And then there’s Steve McQueen, nominated for best director. McQueen is the third Black director ever nominated for an Oscar. He’s a fine director and his picture, 12 Years a Slave, is worthy of the high praise it has received. But it deserves mentioning that his first film, Hunger, was sensational (and about white people). Both it and his follow up, Shame (also about white people), were entirely ignored by the Academy. But the moment McQueen makes a film about slavery, he’s suddenly the man of the hour.
I find myself fondly looking back at 2010, when Katherine Bigelow became the first woman to win the award Best Director for The Hurt Locker (and as the cherry on top she also took home Best Picture). While there was so much talk about her breaking the glass ceiling for women in film (though, it seems no other women has since been allowed within 100 feet of the Best Director award), what’s often overlooked is the material she won with.
Bigelow made a war film, one of the most predominately male genres in the industry. And she did it again with Zero Dark Thirty three years later. I think the idea that only women should make films about women and only men should make films about men and only Asians should make films about Asians to be poppycock. The art of acting comes down to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. The art of directing is all about constructing an illusion. The very nature of narrative film is artifice.
Bigelow spat in the face of those assumptions. By snatching the war film mantle from her male predecessors, she showed the world that Hollywood is not a boys’ club anymore. The question is, if McQueen wins, will he be making a similar statement about race? I don’t think so. At best, it's says, “If at first you don’t get noticed, make a film about slavery.” At worst, it says, “These are the films we, as black artists, get to make.” And I really don’t want that to be true.
There are so many things wrong with the Academy Awards that ragging on them is picking low-hanging fruit, and I’m in no way saying they shouldn’t have nominated 12 Years a Slave. But, just because there are (gasp) four black people at the Oscars, doesn’t mean you can go around patting yourself on the back and tooting the horn of racial equality.