Black Cinema

Is There Beauty in the Breakdown of Race at the Oscars?

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While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.

It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)

Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.

86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.

It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.

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The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.

Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.

The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.

This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.

The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:

1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly

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2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)

But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?

I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.

The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.

The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?

Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?

Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

One Week Until The Oscars: What’s Brewing Under the Surface of the Race

12_years_a_slave_night_a_lEleven days.

Roughly seven months of festival screenings, studio campaigns, critics awards, guild ceremonies, and the weight of public opinion comes down to the eleven days Oscar members vote for the winners of their annual Academy Awards.

From February 14th through February 25th, the Academy’s 6,000+ membership (a vast majority of whom are Caucasian, male, with an average age of 62 years old) will finally give validation to a single film in a race that’s spent a majority of its time without a clear frontrunner. At times its felt like the jockeying for the reins of awards season trumped the spirit of the race and the quality of the films at hand (NYFCC, I’m looking at you).

Though the battle for Best Picture has been a turbulent one, we’ve been fortunate to experience a true race, one that’s forcing Academy members to fit the multi-generational effects of slavery and gender inequality into a mere eleven-day window.

The impact of the Academy’s decision is often meaningless in the grand scheme of life, but this year—according to Oscar bloggers and industry pundits—their choice for Best Picture has the potential to really mean something.

It’s generally a race that relies on the visual, given that the medium itself is (in its purest form) an exercise in the opulence of what we can see. The Academy’s mistake is that it often takes the visual only at face value. Brokeback Mountain was immediately written off by older Academy members as an assault on traditionally-coded genres of the American Western; The Artist’s sensory gimmick harkened back to the age of black, white, and the gold-plated fantasy of the American Dream; 12 Years a Slave could potentially be dismissed on the grounds of being insufferable, as evidenced by Michael Musto’s interview with an anonymous Academy member here.

What the Academy sees is often what they think they’re getting: Gay cowboys; Black and white prestige; African-American blood. They consistently fail to dig deeper.

If anything can be gleaned from Musto’s piece, it’s that there’s a race that’s brewing far beneath the surface of studio campaigns, nominee luncheons, and precursor ceremonies: a race of stupidity that accepts the surface layer and nothing else.

Take, for example, the following quote, which sees the anonymous Academy member discussing his feelings on American Hustle:

“I remember [Jennifer Lawrence]. To me, she was fine. But my son said he read the real story and the Bale character’s real wife was 15 years older than him, not this hot young girl. God, it would have made so much more sense if she’s older and he meets this woman, who in real life is really British. It would have made more sense that he left an older woman for Amy Adams. By the way, Amy had no boobs in that dress. A beautiful dress, but she’s flat chested.”

At best, we can really only speculate about the ideology of the Academy. It’s a bit unfair to make generalized assumptions based merely on the fact that membership is overwhelmingly Caucasian and male. This quote, however, gives us a devastating insight into the mind of Oscar voters and how they think. This voter reveals a long-standing Oscar mentality that somehow correlates a woman’s sex appeal and the quality of her work.

The issue of fairness, then, becomes what prejudices and perspectives Academy voters are willing to shed when they cast their ballots. Conforming to the standards of the dominant majority is a task that many minority nominees must do throughout their individual campaigns and it seems that, as the anonymous voter above solidifies, that a woman’s ascension to Oscar glory is a track very different from that of a man’s.

Yet again, we must examine the visual component of awards season. Pre-cursor ceremonies (such as the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, etc.) afford potential Oscar winners the ability to showcase their charisma, presence, and (if they’re lucky) ability to put together a memorable acceptance speech. They’re Oscar auditions, if you will.

One of the most recognizable symbols of industry success is the red carpet. We associate its colors with prestige and honor, but the red carpet can also be a harbinger of doom for a woman’s chances in the race.

Can you imagine saying something like that about a man? That the type of suit he’d wear would derail his chances at winning an Oscar?

Whereas men’s fashion exists relatively unchanged from event to event, a woman’s trajectory in the race is often contingent on fashion, star power, and overall presence. What catapulted Lupita Nyong’o back into the Oscar race (after having been pushed out prematurely by Jennifer Lawrence’s recognition from the NYFCC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) was her ability to court the audience’s eye. From the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs, Nyong’o evolved from “supporting actress” to “fashion icon,” and “rising star.” Her fashion transformed her identity, and allowed her to regain footing.

It’s shallow waters these women must traverse; depths the likes of current frontrunners in the Actor categories Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have yet to wade through. The discussion revolves around their work and the “bravery” they’ve shown by taking on such roles, yet women must maintain a spectacle of attention.

Musto’s interviewee also calls 12 Years a Slave “torture porn,” saying that the film was far too brutal and that the film beats audiences over the head with its depiction of violence against slaves.

The racial bias of Oscar voters is apparent throughout its 86-year history. Only one film with contemporaneous race-related themes has ever won Best Picture (In the Heat of the Night). Since then, we’ve seen likes of Amistad, The Color Purple, and Lincoln, amongst others, hover around the perimeter of awards season without being given the opportunity to harvest much gold.

We’re looking at an Academy that has, without a doubt, one of the most monumental (within the ideology of awards season, mind you) tasks any Academy has ever had, though it seems that the narrative—as usual—has been crafted by those writing about the Oscars versus the Academy itself.

In fact, it’s the New York Film Critics Circle which in December took the race into uncharted territory by prematurely throwing its support behind American Hustle, derailing the momentum both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave had built since their debuts on the festival circuit months prior. Since then, each Oscar precursor has taken it upon itself to thrust the race in a different direction.

As the dust begins to settle, teetering on the edge of Oscar glory we have two films which, in their own right, would change the definition of what it means to be the Best Picture of the year.

On one hand, we have Gravity, a film driven solely by a female character for the majority of its run. It’s a monumental achievement in terms of visual effects and emotional resonance, with director Alfonso Cuaron seamlessly blending gorgeous, high-tech spectacle with a simple (yet powerful) narrative metaphor. Most importantly, the film doesn’t sexualize its female star.

If it wins Best Picture, Gravity will be the first film set in space to enter such ranks, and it will join a select few films driven only by female performances to have won the Academy’s top prize. In a year when three films driven by female characters roared into the top-ten domestic earners of 2013 (aside from Gravity at #6, the other two being The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at #1 and Frozen at #3—and climbing), Gravity would put a fitting cap atop an industry narrative calling for a greater female presence in front of and behind the camera.

o-GRAVITY-TRAILER-facebook12 Years a Slave, the other frontrunner, poses an interesting case. Never before has a black filmmaker won the Academy’s Best Director Oscar, nor has a film directly about slavery  or with a predominantly-African-American cast won Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave would usher in a new identity not only for the Academy, but for the minority voice in the industry as a whole.

What does the path to glory look like for 12 Years a Slave, though?

12 Years a Slave is not entering an arena as a representative of “the norm,” therefore it will not be treated as such by Academy voters. It will be (and has been already) objectified for being an alternative. Its filmmakers, cast, and characters are of a race that’s alternative to the norm. This is a film crafted by black hands, starring black actors, that’s entering a realm where it needs to impress white voters to succeed.

Validation by the white audience is, then, the only way for a black film to succeed on this front. The cinematic, societal, and historical worth of 12 Years a Slave would taste much sweeter with validation as the Academy’s Best Picture if it were voted on by a diverse membership.

Victory will not truly be realized until the current minority has an influential sway in the selection process, which means having to play into the standards and expectations of white Oscar voters in the current race. As it is, the Academy’s attempts to diversify its ranks are a work in progress, though not fully realized (and won’t be for quite some time).

Similarly, studios will not change what they produce until we start seeing alternatives to the standards they push. We must ask ourselves why they push what they push, however. They’re not peddling wafer-thin female bodies an the fantasy of white-dominated blockbusters without reason; it’s simply what audiences see. The audience dictates the product. While recent films like The ButlerAbout Last NightRide Along, and Think Like a Man prove that there’s a consistent audience for “minority” films as profitable entities, critical and award-based validation for films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave only improves the perceived credibility of the minority voice for a general audience and for studios.

Visibility is key.

12 Years a Slave is not the best picture of the year. The Oscars have never been about awarding the best of the best. It’s political, so it’s time voters start understanding and accepting the game they’re playing. For the health of the industry, McQueen’s film would be the one to open doors, generate headlines, and change the face of the minority within the academy and the industry. It’s playing into the white man’s game, catering to his tastes and being validated by his voting system, but it’s a start.

You simply must play the Oscar game, whether it’s reaffirming visual standards of women’s fashion to singling out race as the driving force behind a film’s success.

Doing what’s right, what looks right, what we can see, after all, is the Academy’s game. Depth is irrelevant, and the surface is cherished.

The Academy does what it wants to do, and has done so unabashedly over the years. They pick what they like, and they stick with it.

It’s a visual medium and, despite such racial objectification voters might exercise when ticking off 12 Years a Slave, perhaps it’s time for change that we can see.

It takes eleven days to vote. We’re seven days away from the Oscars. With a mere twenty-four hours left for Academy members to cast their ballots, let’s hope that the bitter injustices done unto the likes of The Color Purple or Brokeback Mountain are burned into their memory before they let American Hustle steal what’s rightfully others’.

Red carpet coverage for the 86th Annual Academy Awards begins Sunday at 7:00 PM EST on ABC

Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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Black Cinema and the Oscars; “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station” as Game-Changers?

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Will 2013 be the Oscar year for black cinema? We can attempt to sift the answer out of the Academy’s track record for failing to recognize influential black cinema; it’s an issue that comes up a few times every Oscar season, and for good reason.

Just ask Spike Lee.

I detest the word “minority” not for its inherent definition, but for its becoming a socially-coded word synonymous with “outcast” or “inferior.”

Minority is small. Minority is defeated. And in a system such as the Academy’s voting process—which sees a membership that’s 94% Caucasian cast ballots to determine the best films of the year—the majority often has unchallenged control of the status quo.

Is this not how democracy works, you say? Sure. But when such a high percentage of one race, age group, and gender (old white men) determines what qualifies as great cinema within an industry in which so many “minorities” have given themselves an independent voice, we often question what is presented to us and deemed worthy. It’s good fun predicting the outcome but, at the end of the day, the system becomes all too predictable thanks to the consistent complexion of the voting base year after year.

The last time the Academy wholeheartedly accepted a film by black filmmakers, about black people, for black audiences, was 2009’s Precious. That’s four calendar years. 2011’s The Help, which received numerous nominations, was crafted primarily by white hands and told from the perspective of a white protagonist. It detailed black issues, albeit coming off more as a product of white guilt (a white woman almost single-handedly combats racism in a small Mississippi town) than a beacon of the black voice that is so often stifled in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

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And then we look at calendar year 1985, when The Color Purple received 11 nominations without notching a single win. Also directed by a white male (Steven Spielberg) The Color Purple was—more distinctly than The Help—a film with a black cast dealing with, for the sake of this argument, “black” issues. Marred by controversy on both sides (NAACP protests against the film’s portrayal of black males, industry backlash when Spielberg was snubbed for a Best Director nomination), The Color Purple stands as a reminder of the inability for the film industry, as progressive a medium it often tends to be, to agree on issues of race and presentation.

Precious was unique in the sense that Mo’Nique, giving one of the most emotionally-arresting performances in any film, was awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role in a black film. Her costars are primarily black, her director is black, and the film’s narrative is told from a black perspective—and it’s not pretty. It can’t be glossed over with Jessica Tandy in a Sunday hat. Quite simply, it’s something white Oscar voters tend to shy away from recognizing. Of course other black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but the films which birthed their performances aren’t necessarily “cultural” cinema in the way that Precious featured a black cast, a black director, and a black narrative perspective.

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The Butler, helmed by Precious director Lee Daniels, chronicles the life of a White House butler who served several presidents during his tenure. It comes as an almost accidental metaphor for the Academy itself. An industry built on “alternatives” from the very start and throughout its history (“film is fad, film is not art,” countercultural independent and art films, subculture film movements, etc.), its flagship product is still determined by a gathering of old white men. The film is building immense buzz, especially for Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance—for which it seems poised to win if things continue as they are. The Butler, however, might come as the first film to be widely recognized by Oscar to feature a black perspective commenting on a white status quo (whether historical or contemporary is irrelevant).

And then we have Fruitvale Station, which falls in-step far more comfortably with a film like Precious, though dealing with contemporary issues of race and power with real-world implications as its protagonist, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan, sure to earn a Lead Actor nomination here), existed outside the confines of a fictional text. The film continues to resonate with audiences and critics alike, and will likely be a contender in a few major categories at this year’s Oscars.

That gives us two products of black cinema building Oscar momentum. I don’t think either film has a serious shot to threaten the likes of American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street’s chances at winning Best Picture. In a way, I don’t think they were ever in a position to, as films like The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing were crowning achievements of racial discourse within their respective calendar years. Sure, films deemed as the best picture of the year often fade into obscurity not even a year after their crowning (I’m looking at you, Argo), but there’s something so momentarily important—urgent, even—about the importance of what the Oscar ceremony says about our culture and film industry as a whole, and our society is long overdue. Argo was, in the simplest terms, the safest choice out of last year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. It was topical enough (conflict in the Middle East) to be relevant, but a social statue of limitations, if you will, (it chronicles events which took place decades ago), kept it from veering too far into controversial territory. If it’s one thing the Academy has been consistently afraid of over the years, it’s controversy (just ask Kathryn Bigelow). Safe bets prevail over artistic or social radicals. David Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Blue Velvet and Best Picture was only a fraction away from Brokeback Mountain’s grasp, but they were present, no? Inclusion is recognition, but the prize is reserved for films that everyone can sit back and feel comfortable about, and while The Butler and Fruitvale Station are far away from changing the game entirely, the fact that they are even in the Oscar race at all is vital for continued presence of a racial dialogue in mainstream cinema. Oscar winners often fail to capture the immediacy and cultural spirit of their respective years, favoring “safe” or “default” winners over anything slightly controversial—even if that controversy (say, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty or Do The Right Thing) preserves the climate of the society and point in history the film came from.

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If 2013 has taught us anything it’s that the industry is shifting towards more specific audiences than big-budgeted, broadly-appealing blockbusters. Where male-driven-and-targeted pictures like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, and Pacific Rim failed to make even close to their supersized budgets back in ticket sales (each cost well over $100 million to produce), films with unique appeal (The Purge, The Conjuring, Now You See Me), a built-in commentary on race or culture (The Butler and Fruitvale Station will earn their budgets back by the end of their runs) or the female-driven “Bridesmaids Effect” (The Heat) surged with audiences. We’re consistently shown that things which challenge the heteronormative standard are popular with audiences; why, then, are we consistently reminded of the opposite when it comes to championing the best films of the year at the Academy Awards?

As the Academy welcomes its first black female president (as well as a diverse range of women and minorities joining its ranks, from Jennifer Lopez to Ava Duvernay), we’re still not at a point where we can call the playing field even. It’s easy to view wins for films such as In the Heat of the Night (white director) or Driving Miss Daisy (white director) as mere apologies for cinematic inequality. We can only hope that, with renewed vision and a healthy dose of time, we will see the type of change that Do The Right Thing could have brought if only it had been so lucky all those years ago.