If it were longer than 30 minutes, Mark Anthony Green’s mixtape video, “Fair Use,” would likely find itself competing with “13th,” “OJ: Made in America” and “I Am Not Your Negro” for top honors in the Best Documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards. It is a must-see short film. “Fair Use,” through a disorienting series of seamlessly edited archival footage, showcases a history of America consuming Black culture and identities. In-between these scenes, the director interweaves an exchange between James Brown and a Los Angeles news anchor who asks Brown, “How did this trouble begin?” to which Brown wryly replies, “Living in America.”
If the 89th annual Academy Awards’ were as politically savvy as it likes to applaud itself as being, “Fair Use” would make for great punctuation throughout the telecast asking the question, “Do we actually value Black Americans or do we just see them as propaganda?” And if Blackness somehow runs the table at the Oscars this weekend, does it matter?
Given the current fervor over the Oscars’ whitewashing of Blacks in film and its failure to regularly recognize Black talent, this year’s awards could well be the tipping point. Are the Oscars still a culturally relevant institution? If the Academy mostly recognizes white talent this year, will Black people finally begin to see it as irrelevant? And if the Oscars bestow Black talent with awards, will whites in Donald Trump’s America grouse about “affirmative-action Oscars” as a way to regain “pre-eminence” in the future?
The anti-Oscars campaign #OscarsSoWhite was a public-relations black eye for the Academy last year. Enraged activists inside and outside the industry produced criticism from every possible outlet on the persistent omission and dismissal of Black art and artists. The occasion marked an opportunity to reflect on the quantity and quality of Black Oscar wins. According to an analysis done in a January 2016 Economist article that looked at representation, over the past 15 years, Blacks accounted for only nine percent of the top roles (lead and supporting cast) that could qualify for an Oscar nomination. The Academy also struggles with a historical narrative around these wins. Starting as far back as Hattie McDaniels’ 1940 Best Supporting Actress win for playing “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind” all the way through Chiwetel Ejiofor’s 2013 Best Actor victory for “12 Years A Slave,” the Academy has been criticized for its tendency to reward only Black films and/or performances that tightly orbit slavery, poverty and crime. This has drawn righteous ire for egregious snubs that have occurred over that time period, most notably “Do The Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Creed.”
Awards for Black artists who work behind the camera are even more scarce. Ava Duvernay did not even receive a nomination at the 2015 Oscars for “Selma,” a film that garnered near-universal praise for its portrayal of one of the most critical moments of the civil rights movement. The film received two nominations, one for Best Song (“Glory”) and another for Best Picture, marking the first time in Oscar history that a film directed by a Black woman received a nomination. (“Selma” lost to “Birdman.”) Duvernay’s follow-up, “13th,” a Netflix-produced documentary on mass incarceration, has been met with similar acclaim, earning a nomination for Best Documentary. It joins critical and commercial hits “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “Loving” and “Moonlight” as nominations to watch in the year following #OSCARSSOWHITE and especially amidst the political climate that has surfaced with the election of Trump as the 45th president. The Academy’s response to this year’s Black nominations will be under particular scrutiny because of this, making every category a statement about the night, the times and whether the Academy actually is progressing.
“Between 1995-2015, across the four major acting categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress), 400 actors received nominations, with 47 nods going to nonwhite actors and 31 going to Black actors. During that 20-year span, Blacks won 10 awards. There were five years where not a single nonwhite actor was nominated (1995, 1997, 2010, 2014, 2015) and four years where only one nonwhite actor was nominated in any of the four major acting categories (1998, 2000, 2005, 2007). Interestingly, there may have been an ‘Obama Effect’ for the Oscars: From 2009 to 2015, Blacks netted 12 of a possible 120 nominations, winning three times.
This year, there are a total of six Black nominations and, for the Oscars, that is record-setting progress. These are strong numbers, though not astronomical ones given that this year’s tally beats only 2004 and 2006, where there were five Black nominees. And while “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving” and “Moonlight” have a combined total of 16 nominations, that collective number beats “La La Land,” a film routinely lauded as a love letter to Hollywood’s bygone golden era, by only 2.
All this brings us to the familiar question of industry approval by the likes of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Grammys, etc.: Should we care? (The conversation still feels fresh given the fact that just a couple of weeks ago, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” lost to Adele’s “25.”) The Academy’s voting criteria remains a mystery to the general public, though part of the scrutiny has been that a large reason that prior snubs and losses have happened is because of a lack of diversity in its voting ranks.
As of 2016, the Academy’s 6,200 Oscar voters were 91 percent white, 76 percent male, with Blacks (3 percent), Asians (2 percent) and Latinx (2 percent) statistical blips in the representation ranks. In a move to address this, the Academy has reformed its membership bylaws, vowing to double the number of women and nonwhite voters by 2020, capping the term limit to 10 years and increasing and diversifying its governor seats. Those important, but glacial, moves will undoubtedly help the Academy move forward, but they will not provide long-term satisfaction, only a wait-and-see attitude. It’s also important to remember that the Oscars merely award what’s presented to them, and as such, its influence is both out sized and reactionary. It can’t set the Hollywood standards on production, casting, writing, directorial or green lighting choices — the crucial pipeline spots that would also increase industry diversity — it can only evaluate the products.
Or can it? Across the pond, the BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Oscars, issued its own reform strategy. It not only altered the criteria for membership, it also changed its nomination requirements, requiring that nominees now meet at least two of four standards that address issues concerning meaningful contributions of traditionally underrepresented groups. The BAFTA moves come with the acknowledgment that representation in front of the camera isn’t the only one that matters. If Hollywood and the Academy want to meaningfully influence its own enterprise, BAFTA’s approach gives some ideas on how to pressure and incentivize.
The reality is that the film industry and its awards ceremonies will continue to disappoint us even as they pull us in every year. Winning and losing in these arenas still has tremendous import for the public because art still mirrors how society views itself, and who matters in music, comedy, film and TV still have the ability to shape our consciousness and conversations with each other. Many people still take their cues from pop culture, so the images we’re shown — and not shown — matter a great deal. There is power in admission and omission of identities, histories and stories
Black people have precarious relationships with institutions evaluating our merit and mobility, with everything from colleges to banks to the criminal justice system operating in fashions that offer, at best, incremental hope and change. This may or may not mean we should distance ourselves from these ceremonies, but it does mean that we should tread lightly in our investment of the Oscars and institutions like it. Institutions, after all, will make fair use of anyone.