This year’s Academy Awards presentation takes places at the end of Black History Month. The congruence of this fact with the increased profile of heretofore minority cinema is more than felicitous. Since the Twitter campaign #Oscarsowhite following the announcement of the 2015 nominations, both the Academy and the motion picture industry have made visible efforts to promote work by Asian, Latino, and African-American directors, writers, actors, and musicians.
The question is not whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the broader public accept that films by and about people of color are engaging and worth of support. The questions we might more profitably consider are the way in which black cinema in particular is viewed by a shrinking majority audience and how the Academy or others make judgments about race and film.
The success of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight in the Best Picture category two years ago is among the most notable occasions in the Academy and the industry’s history. Written by two African Americans (Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney) and directed by one, the film received eight Oscar nominations. The film’s story about a neglected young boy taken in by a drug dealer and its three-part structure as the main character Chiron works though a stunted, then fully realized gay identity presented black experience – and black masculinity – in ways that had never been seen in U.S. cinema before. Jenkins announces his determination to encompass a fully dimensional and multifaceted view (literally) of urban black experience with the film’s opening, extended tracking shot of Juan interacting with locals, rendered through widescreen Cinemascope and an encircling 360° camera movement.
The film’s remarkably lush chromatic palette and evocative, expressionist lighting, evident in both its indoor and outdoor sequences and poetically expressed in both its title and lines in the script (e.g. “black boys’ skin looks blue in moonlight”), appeared as new in the history of racial representation.
While most commentators agree that these aspects of the film distinguish it, some take a different view. Racquel Gates refers to red and pink in the shot of Paula, Chiron’s mother, above, and she points out that “the television and film industries have typically prioritized the beautification of white skin on screen,” but not black skin. She avers that, while Moonlight offers a notable exception to this pattern, to emphasize its aesthetic accomplishment is to “adher[e…] to a visual standards of ‘quality’ cinema” that heretofore excluded African American films.
This is the conundrum that African American cinema and/or its reception faces today. As the recent spate of awards nominees make clear, Hollywood’s taste-makers are reticent to fully endorse films about black experience that is not extreme or spectacular. Ava DuVernay’s 2014 historical drama Selma, about the Voting Rights Act, included lurid elements of Dr. Martin Luther King’s marital infidelities and the violence of Civil Rights. But much of its dramatic tension (and greater interest) was manifest in intra-black individual and group conflict or King and his wife’s domestic trials. Selma’s director was not nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category. Though the film did receive a nomination for Best Picture, the Academy’s passing over of DuVernay for Best Director almost assured that the film would not win the Best Picture award. (It went to Birdman.)
This year might seem to offer a different scenario. Black, Latina, and Persian (or part Iranian) characters appear in five of the eight films nominated for Best Picture. Black Panther, Green Book, and BlacKkKlansman place black performers, history, experience, and identity on full display. Several of the actors in these films have received nominations for their performances. And Spike Lee, who instigated the New Black Cinema in 1989 with Do the Right Thing, has received his first-ever nomination for Best Director.
This is clearly a different circumstance than in 2015. And it would seem to herald a kind of progress in the ongoing wake of Black Lives Matter.
Yet these films also offer versions of what the Academy and, arguably, many white viewers find interesting. Black Panther does a wonderful job installing a black hero in the Marvel template and franchise. Green Book has been derided for celebrating a cross-racial friendship of the sort that US culture and film has relied on tiresomely (e.g. Twain’s Huck and Jim, Natty Bumpo and Chingachcook [in both Fenimore Cooper’s novels and myriad film adaptations of The Last of the Mohicans]; Tony Curtis’s “Joker” and Sidney Poitier’s Cullen in The Defiant Ones , Poitier [again] as Tibbs with Rod Steiger’s Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night , the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover partners of the Lethal Weapon series, Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy–the list could go on). As many critics have written, BlacKkKlansman is a finely executed work of film art, one that only further affirms Lee’s auteur status and his position as one of American cinema’s most prolific and accomplished directors.
As director Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) pointed out in a Twitter article, however, BlacKkKlansman deliberately embellishes both the historical actions of its main character, John Stallworth, and the Colorado Springs Police Department. Its incendiary ending and its overt linking of events from 1979 to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA are decidedly dramatic. (The irony of Spike Lee venerating the police department of Colorado Springs is not lost on Riley, who rightly points to Lee’s prescient and damning account of police choke-holding an innocent black man to death–Radio Raheem–in his earlier, more audacious picture). These endings to the film, along with its Manichean race politics, offer the Academy a typically blunt, schematic way of depicting conflict and, in an unlikely way for Lee, its reconciliation. These are among the reasons for the Oscar nod.
Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, received three Oscar nominations: Best Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress. It garnered nominations for neither Best Picture nor Best Director. These might not count as “snubs,” necessarily. But the movie’s modest subject matter seems to have won no recognition for its quiet but beautiful story and complicated narrative technique. Its love story of Tish and Fonny and its preservation beyond the film’s optimistic ending, its exquisite period detail, its restrained performances, its account of family devotion and sacrifice, its presentation of a humble but solid black middle class, are not standard-issue Hollywood representations of blackness. Jenkins has spoken in interviews about wishing to preserve the essence of James Baldwin’s prose from the source novel. The film’s literariness might also include its convoluted temporal structure, in which events unfold synchronically, often without full disclosure of their causes or outcomes.
Beale Street thus issues two unusual challenges to viewers or, at least, to the members of the Academy. With no overt politicizing or historical statement, and deprived of the high drama (or melodrama) of most any Hollywood depiction of race, the film does not clearly place its viewer within a political camp. The real challenge, indeed the most radical assertion the film makes is what may well account for its lack of full recognition this awards season. And that is the well-nigh radical notion indeed that African Americans, when let to “be” or be represented by other artists of color, are no different–no more nor less dramatic, sensational, pitiable, or heroic–than anyone else.
Featured Image credit: Barry Jenkins speaks alongside the cast of Moonlight after his film’s surprise win at the 89th Academy Awards in February 2017. Disney | ABC Television Group, CC BY-ND 2.0 via flickr.com.