Editor's note: 18/01/2016 This post was originally titled The Oscars & The Fragility of White Supremacy, but I was reaching and my arms are too short. My ideas were all over the place and I wasn't equipped to write about such a far reaching subject, so I redirected my focus. I hope you enjoy this post.
I can now instantaneously diagnose tweets, so when Chris Sumlin made it his mission, last week when the 88th Academy Award nominations were announced, to point out that while we were “worried about Leonardo Dicaprio not having an Oscar Will Smith has never been honoured either” I swiftly categorised his tweets as Hotep. "How can we be actively wishing the white man success while our black brothers are left to suffer?" Please visit The Visibility Project so you too will be able to easily identify members of Hotep twitter.
His tweet came along with pictures of what I am assuming are the films Sumlin felt Will Smith should have either been nominated or won Academy Awards for; Concussion, Ali & Independence Day. Inde. Pen. Dence. Day. Cue sarcasm.
I was livid because we all know sci-fi films don’t win at The Oscars (except all of these ones. Independence Day included). And how dare Will Smith be brought into the Oscar discussion after that egregious Nigerian accent he affected in Concussion? Furthermore what people of colour even gave Oscar worthy performances last year? This is the discussion I was a part of on Twitter.
I was wrong. I wrongly assumed his tweets were Hotep when in fact it was a genuine question. Why again were no people of colour nominated in any of the categories this year? Sumlin’s tweet was not the product of Hotep membership but pointed to a glitch in the matrix. I like to think of myself as someone who is permanently woke, attuned to the explicit and implicit signs of racism when consuming media, but I missed this one to the point where I became complicit in perpetuating the myth that there were no people of colour who did work deserving of an Academy Award in 2015. I would even go as far as to say that I (unconsciously but very loudly) gave weight to the list of nominees being justified in its lack of racial diversity.
The Huffington Post’s 9 Actors of Colour Who Should Have Been Nominated For An Oscar This Year put me to shame. I have seen all but one of the performances on the list and when challenged I couldn’t remember any of them. It’s not because these performances were not strong and solid. My inability to recall these awesome performances in relationship to the Academy nomination question is because I have been programmed to equate Oscar worthiness with duh Duh DUUUUH whiteness.
The question is “What constitutes an Oscar worthy performance?” In Aryan Varma’s blog on Quora, he explains Oscar worthy performances are those where “the character compliments the actor and the actor compliments the character.” In that case the performers on The Huffington Post list deserve at least a nomination. Who wasn’t thoroughly disturbed by Idris Elba’s performance in Beasts of No Nation? Who wasn’t gripped by Samuel L Jackson’s sleuth work in (the problematic) Hateful Eight? Who wasn’t drawn in by Oscar Isaac’s mystery in Ex Manchina?
In order to fully understand the argument we have to look at the process behind receiving an Academy Award nomination. In my search for answers, I found that Idris Elba, despite his pitch perfect performance, was not eligible for nomination because Beasts of No Nation was not “publicly screened for paid admission in Los Angeles County” or screened “for a qualifying run of at least seven straight days.” Beasts of No Nation as my fellow Netflix & Chillers will know was released online for our enjoyment or disgust as the case may be. You can hop on over to Mental Floss to read all the details. Personally, I didn't know it was such a complicated and political process.
The Academy can only nominate films that have been submitted by studios. We cannot blame The Academy if the studios do not make racially diverse films that are not only powerful but also are eligible for nomination. For us to be only angry at the Academy Award nominations is akin to smoking cigarettes and being angry at cancer. I will not absolve The Academy of their negligence. If their process was fair and equal why are 77% of their members men, 94% white and 86% over the age of 50? It cannot be a fair and representative process when those casting the votes are not representative of society as a whole. This is not up for debate. It is fact. The LA Times reported that in June 2015 the Academy accepted 322 new members a larger number than ever before to help normalise their “membership to represent both the industry and the country as a whole.” Well, despite their best efforts, they flopped because for the second year in a row #OscarsSoWhite is trending.
Thoroughly accomplished, seasoned, tested, just bloody awesome director of Straight Outta Compton F Gary Gray was eligible for nomination and campaigned but was passed over but the two white screenwriters of the film have been nominated. Is this just a horrible coincidence? Nah fam.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.- Ian Fleming
Creed lead actor Michael B Jordan was also eligible to be nominated for his role in the Rocky legacy film but was passed over and instead Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. We have happenstance, coincidence and now for the enemy action – Will Smith being looked over for Best Actor for Concussion.
While I was not a fan of his version of a Nigerian accent, The Hollywood Reporter commented the following on his performance “’Concussion confirms Will Smith as a Serious Best Actor Threat.” While Janet Hubert was as unimpressed with Will Smith's accent as I was, Variety boldly reported “that if there is an Oscar play here, it’s Smith.”
So how did Smith miss out on being nominated? It wasn't his accent. The 77% white Academy members don't know what a Nigerian accent should have sounded like. Why did Samuel L Jackson miss out as well? My problems with The Hateful Eight are well documented but that doesn’t totally exclude Jackson from an Academy Award nomination. If 3 occurrences is the enemy in action, what is four? Four times black men were worthy, eligible, campaigning but are still left without nominations? Both Creed and Straight Outta Compton earned rave reviews, $100million plus at the box office and still don’t receive nominations? These black men created important work, innovative, heartfelt work and yet no recognition from the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts? Explain this to me. Help me understand.
Everyone wont agree with me. To them the system works as it needs to. To them those four black men weren't nominated because they were not good enough this year and d their performances didn't warrant nominations. This is a lie. The people who would say that are the privileged amongst us and the blind. Mr Brian Beutler is one such simultaneously privileged yet blind individual. Last year criticising the Selma controversy he wrote an article stating “Selma isn’t a best picture nominee because the Academy felt politically obligated to recognize it somehow, but because best picture is the one category that really fits.” Once again this gif comes in handy.
It is deplorable that anyone with eyes would watch Selma and say the only category it is worthy of being nominated in is Best Picture. How can a film be a Best Picture nominee but miss out on Best Director? David Oyelowo is a British actor who perfected Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s southern accent, his conviction and power and yet Best Picture was all Selma deserved? Don’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining, sir. Don’t you dare.
More questionable than Beutler’s article were Common’s statements in this Details article last year. When speaking of the Best Director (Ava Duvernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo) he said “The movie is about the voting process, and if people voted for who they thought was the best in these categories, then we've got to accept the process and look at the fact that, man, this movie is impacting people.” Fam, it’s easy to say that when you stand from a place of privilege having just won a Golden Globe and go on later to win an Oscar.
His sentiments echo that of the only black woman EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner) Whoopi Goldberg when she let it be known that Viola Davis was in fact mistaken and “The truth of the matter is there's been plenty of opportunity (for women of colour). I mean, ‘Scandal.’ Let's just start with that.” Queen Whoopi’s myopic understanding of the issue of representation in Hollywood genuinely hurt my soul. The fact that she’s the only black EGOT should alert her to the fact that there’s a problem. Again, standing from a place of privilege and wondering what the rest of us are complaining about. *le sigh*
Representation is not just some nice theory that helps liberal feminists sleep at night. Even I’m not that idealistic. Diversity in TV and film is a licence to print money. “Though 37 percent of the U.S. population, minorities bought 46 percent of the $1.2 billion in tickets sold in the United States last year.” You can read the British statistics in the BFI Report here.
If the underrepresented in the United States, the United Kingdom and across the western world stopped going to the cinema, they could cripple Hollywood nearly over night. Are the powers that be so willing to ignore people of colours’ talent and appeal that they would jeopardise their money? This is a legitimate question because this isn’t a trend and this isn’t going away. Black and brown people are only getting more talented, more brave and finding our way to access.
The cracks are showing and those in power have no choice but to bend to the will of the people sooner or later. Both The LA Times & The Washington Post reported BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite last Oscar season which lead to the Academy Award telecast being "the lowest ranked in the last [six] years” due to their boycott. The audience is in control. If their viewing figures continue to dwindle causing them to lose advertisers and revenue, they will be forced to take action.
People of colour will no longer be placated or satisfied with only being invited to tell jokes and host the awards while not being rewarded for the strides we make as actors, directors, screen writers, make up artists etc. It's already begun, Spike Lee has already decided he wont be at the ceremony to receive his award.
I unequivocally do not agree with Jada Pinkett Smith when she concluded a Twitter debate she started about the Oscars by saying “People can only treat us in the way which we allow.” With all due respect to a woman who has gone through the ringer in Hollywood for over two decades, this is classic Hotep rhetoric.
People of Colour didn’t create this Academy Award system and therefore are not responsible for how it treats us. We are just trying to navigate it and earn our just rewards. Despite the hotepness, one point Pinkett Smith made struck me “Should people of colour refrain from participating all together?”
My friends often bequeath me encouraging gifts inline with my dream of earning an Oscar, I have paintings and books and all sorts to help me along my journey to winning my Oscar, but now I have to wonder if my dream is realistic? Will there be a seat at the table for me? Why do I want to even sit at a table that wasn't made for me anyway (as one twitter user asked me).
Guess what? I am the ancestor of people who were scattered across the diaspora against their will and if we would have been left in Africa to determine our own agency and self reliance maybe we would have had an African Academy of Arts that Europeans and Americans had to travel to every year to compete in. But we don't! So suck up your Hotep tears and stop telling us that lasting change is unattainable. We have created our own spaces and have ceremonies like The NAACP Image Awards in the United States and The Screen Nations here in Britain. These are just two examples of powerful organisations who take care and great effort to recognise the painstaking work black and brown creatives do for the arts. But systems like The Academy Awards must change. Dry your hotep tears, there's work to be done.
And do the work of enacting change however you want, if you want to boycott like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, by all means do so, I support you. If you know there are problems in the system but like John Singleton feel that the best way to combat it is to keep working to uplift our fellow creatives both up and coming and well established do so, I support you. Black people are not a monolith, it is Hotep to expect us to all act in the same way. I wont be watching the Oscars this year but I will also keep working to earning my own.
I want one, innit? Ha!
Jump into the comments below, I finally got them working. Have I got it wrong? Did I spend too long writing this post?
Tweet me @danielledash
Watch my show Dear Jesus. Oscar worthy. Ha!