Opinion

The Oscars are finally taking black art seriously

It's about time!

The Academy Award nominations are in, and two things are clear. First, we've come a long way in our nationwide conversation about diversity in film. And second, films featuring non-white protagonists make real money.

Moonlight — a beautiful coming-of-age tale about a gay black man — outperformed expectations at the box office. Fences — based on the August Wilson play about a working-class black family in the 1950sturned out to be the third highest-grossing film on Christmas Day. And Hidden Figures — about brilliant black women at NASA during the space race with the Soviet Union — has been a box-office juggernaut. All three films also raked in Oscar nominations: eight for Moonlight, four for Fences, and three for Hidden Figures. Indeed, of the 20 actors nominated for Oscars this year, six are black — a record.

Reflect, for a moment, on just how quickly things have changed. Almost exactly a year ago, Fox Searchlight purchased Sundance darling Birth of a Nation — Nate Parker's project on Nat Turner's slave rebellion — for $17.5 million. As Kara Brown wrote then, the film's critical success felt like a response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign protesting the near-total exclusion of black artists from last year's Academy Award nominees. But the lingering concern with Birth of a Nation was that the film's ecstatic reception participated in a long and patronizing history that too easily collapses the distinction between black art and black suffering. Exhausted and exasperated by a prestige system that only seems to reward the former when it's about the latter, Brown wrote:

Of the six films actually produced by black people that have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, three are about slavery or slavery-adjacent violence against black people (The Color Purple, Django Unchained, and 12 Years A Slave). The fourth is Selma and the fifth is Precious, two movies that focus on black women being emotionally and physically beaten down in almost every way possible. The last is the The Blind Side, where a white woman who butts in and makes a black kid who was already a promising athlete into an even better athlete.

From a simple visual perspective, I'm tired of being told that I have to watch black actors in physical pain and endure mental abuse for two hours in order to be worthy of a distinction. [Jezebel]

Brown was right then, and she's right now.

It's telling, then, that Birth of a Nation — which this time last year was expected to sweep the Oscars — wasn't even nominated for any Academy Awards. This is in large part a result of revelations about director Nate Parker's history of alleged sexual assault — and it's worth noting that Casey Affleck's Oscar chances were unaffected despite similar revelations. That reflects just how little the Academy Awards can tell us about the actual "quality" of the works in question: Whether Parker's film was initially embraced for reminding us that slavery was bad or rejected thanks to unevenly applied concerns over the treatment of women, the response is clearly separate from the film's artistic merits. If we know anything about the Oscars, it's that merit will never be the primary consideration.

Still, this year's slate of Oscar nominations, with the largest number of black nominees ever, is a victory on two fronts. Not only does this herald a real shift toward a broader recognition of black art, it does so by recognizing films in which black people — rather than endure the things done to them — are the agents driving things forward.

And the list is impressive: Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight all got nominations for Best Picture. Ruth Negga from Loving was nominated for Best Actress, and Viola Davis was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Hidden Figures (making her the first black actress to get three Oscar nominations). Joi MicMIllon became the first black woman to be nominated for Best Editing, for Moonlight. Naomie Harris was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Moonlight, as was Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures. (That, by the way, makes Spencer the first black actress to be nominated for a second Oscar after winning one.) Denzel Washington is up for Best Actor in Fences, and Mahershala Ali got a nod for Supporting Actor in Moonlight.

Then there are the documentaries that center black American experience: From I am Not Your Negro to 13th and O.J.: Made in America, the nominees offer a serious corrective to a vision of art that has largely excluded black art or — when it includes it, made it all about what was done to them, rather than what they did.

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