This winter I dove off a cliff, headfirst; cinematic black excellence rushing towards me. The onslaught against my senses; visually, sonically was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Often throughout the multiple screenings of Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight I’ve attended, I found my face wet, tears having slid down my cheeks and puddled on my chest, for no other reason than I had never before witnessed all these three films were offering. The lazy, sumptuous indulgence with which Denzel Washington allows August Wilson’s words to live eternally through Viola Davis and his stellar cast. The three black women in segregated Virginia working at NASA Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monae brought to life after being hidden for so long. Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ translated to celluloid with Barry Jenkins’ masterful vulnerability. When I came up for air, having immersed myself fully in the waters of these three films, one thing was clear; Hollywood’s antiquated notions of blackness had been shaken to their very core, not yet dismantled but on their way to ruin.
It is important that in our jubilation at the financial and critical success of these films those of us fighting for equity and eventually equality do not become complacent. The race has only just begun. Last night’s wins at the Academy Awards were not the result of the work started by April Reign’s Oscars So White Campaign. Fences has been decades in the making, starting with August Wilson’s seminal 1983 play adapted for the screen after the Tony Award winning Broadway run in 2010. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight came to fruition after an 8 year hiatus for the now Academy Award Winner. Hidden Figures was greenlit in 2015 before the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly was completed. This is to say, these are the products of years of action. The goal of Oscar So White is galvanisation around “the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast and who tells the story behind the camera” Reign, the woman behind the hashtag, told Huffington Post. It is imperative this discourse does not end with the wins by Fences and Moonlight at this year’s Oscars.
In what I view as a reactionary purchase, Fox Searchlight bought Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation for the unprecedented amount of $17.5million at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year during the Oscars So White controversy. When the film came to the London Film Festival, despite the resurfacing of Parker’s 1999 acquittal and the fact the victim later committed suicide, I went to a screening. I was shocked and saddened by how poor the film was. It was underdeveloped, poorly researched, both physically and sexually gratuitously violent and it was then that I fully understood that while the portrayal of blackness on the big screen is important, our fight to achieve representation must never be at the expense of quality storytelling.
At a BFI screening of Fences, my closest friends and I wept at Viola Davis’ performance, the whole film an exercise in a black experience; powerful in its delivery. So devastating was the effect that for hours afterwards, we sat downstairs dissecting the film, our feelings about Troy, Denzel Washington’s character and shared how we all knew men like him. We recalled lines from the film and how they aligned with our understanding of complicated adult love, how these words were true both 34 years ago when August Wilson wrote them and that day we first heard them. The film rocked us. We prayed for Viola Davis’ Academy Award and agreed it belonged to her whether she won or not. How exciting Denzel Washington has the rights to bring ten more of August Wilson’s plays to the big screen? Which other black actresses and actors will he lead to the promised land flowing with gold statuettes?
Last year, I wrote about my exhaustion at what I described as ‘sufferation of black women on screen’ “All good characters have to go through some sort of hell to overcome and conquer in the end but the hell black women traverse on screen feels a little more fiery, a little more brimstoney than the hell reserved for other women.” So when my big sister Samantha Earle took me to an advanced screening of Hidden Figures I wept openly and loudly in the cinema during Taraji P Henson’s life affirming monologue in which she addressed a room full of her white peers about their racism. I wept for the injustice of Henson not being nominated for Leading Actress Academy Award, I wept because her character, loosely based on real life NASA computer Katherine A Johnson, didn’t need to be a slave, or a maid or raped, sexually violated or beaten to achieve that performance. It was pure drama that got her to that height. Then there’s black love. While in Moonlight Mahershala Ali commands each frame he’s in, here he’s happy to allow Taraji P Henson to lead. This is new territory. Where black women can act with the same tools afforded to everyone else- humanity. Hidden Figures treated each character with the full weight of thoughtful creative development, allowing them each, without exception, autonomy to simply be. This is why Hidden Figures, with a modest production budget of $25million, surpassed La La Land and to date has box office revenue of $182million worldwide. Yes, the film played fast and loose with the facts, at times choosing to molly coddle white fragility with invented acts of heroism from Kevin Costner’s character that never took place- seeking to assuage the reality that whiteness could be cruel even within the confines of the enlightened, hallowed halls of NASA; but this family friendly film proved once and for all, a film helmed by black women has always been able to be successful if only they had access to the same distribution and marketing opportunities films with white leads have. I have seen Hidden Figures four times. Taking my mother to see it was my favourite time, on the drive home her joy at being able to see her work place dramas translated on screen by Octavia Spencer in whom she saw herself, touched me deeply. I want to replicate this moment over and over and over again. Our black mothers deserve to see themselves.
Then there’s Moonlight. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this film about the coming of age of Chiron, a young, black gay man living in Miami. I willingly handover money at the box office time and time again because quite simply the best film I’ve ever seen. To centre and celebrate black masculinity and sexuality without sacrificing the fullness of black womanhood is a feat few films have achieved before. Do you understand? Barry Jenkins was able to make black men, regularly, unjustifiably feared, layered, emotional and complex without demonising black women- simultaneously not once mentioning or appealing to or appeasing whiteness and its effects. Tarrell Alvin McCraney handed the baton to Jenkins who flew down the home straight with a story that will forever reverberate through the ages as a siren call to the voiceless, disenfranchised and oppressed that their experiences matter and they are more than equipped to tell them. With a production budget of $1.6million, The Academy Award Winning Best Picture currently has a box office return of 22 times the cost it took to make. Why do I keep banging on about budgets and box office returns? The insidious lie that black films don’t make money has been debunked. The film industries must invest in underrepresented voices in order to financially benefit from their ability to both win awards and bring a return at the box office.
I was woken out of sleep, I ran to find my glasses and my phone to take stock of what happened and at first I laughed so deeply, my bones rattled together as euphoria spread through my body. Despite the odds Moonlight had won. But their moment to bask in the glory of victory was tarnished by a screw up so astounding it quickly became a fixture on the 24 hour news cycles around the globe. Watching the video footage over and over again and reading the transcript of the events, it became clear that if not for Jordan Horowitz, who made it clear to Jimmy Kimmel’s simple ass it was not acceptable to just pretend they had won the award, the cast and creatives behind the real Best Picture winners might never have had their time on the stage. Kimmel could go on to claim his comments “I think you guys should keep it” or “Why can’t we give out a whole bunch of them?” and later “remember this is just an awards show” were just him seeking to bring levity to a clearly terrible situation for both the teams behind the films but what he was actually doing was diminishing the achievement of Moonlight. Jimmy Kimmel’s comments were tactless and unnecessary providing quantifiable proof the only thing stronger than a white enemy is a white ally and in Horowitz’s determination to make it clear La La Land had in fact lost, that Moonlight were the true winners, he usurped Kimmel’s (deliberate or not) attempts at lessening this moment of black victory. Fuck you, Jimmy *Eminem voice*. Price Waterhouse Cooper, the accounting firm and adjudicators who oversee the Oscars ballots have a hell of a lot to answer for in the aftermath. At the very least, this was simple incompetence and the most it was an act of sabotage that stole the moment artists work lifetimes to experience. Both are unacceptable. “The failure of a system that was supposed to be foolproof, checked and counterchecked repeatedly, could not have been more public” and more devastating for all involved.
There is no space for complacency in the current creative landscape. We must ready ourselves that despite the wins and nominations of Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali, Barry Jenkins, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight, Denzel Washington, Fences, Naomie Harris and Hidden Figures next year we may see black artists once again ignored. The race is not for the swift, but those who can endure and it is our duty to ensure the representation of blackness on the big screen is not a rarity or a trend only to be celebrated under duress but a staple without which the Academy Awards would fail to represent the diverse fans of film around the world.
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