The Problem With #OscarsSoBlack

Photo: Courtesy of A24 Films.
This year’s Oscar nominations are sure to be more diverse than the whitewashed ballot Hollywood handed out last year. The continuing box-office success of Hidden Figures, the artistic triumph of Moonlight at the Golden Globes, and the powerhouse pairing of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences are cause to celebrate, all trophies aside. And the fact that these films are major awards season contenders marks significant progress from 2016’s discouraging #OscarsSoWhite fiasco.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In a signature simplifying gesture of the Twitter age, The New York Times ran an op-ed this week asking, “This Year, #OscarsSoBlack?” To his credit, columnist Frank Bruni lavishes particular praise on the films that drove him to ask this question, and acknowledges, up front, the “Hidden Fences” debacle that marred the Golden Globes. “On the bright side, at least Jenna Bush Hager didn’t say ‘Hidden Fences in the Moonlight,’” Bruni quips. But have we really reached this point in counting our blessings?

Bruni isn’t alone. The Wrap wondered whether this would be the year of #OscarsSoBlack back in November. And let's not forget Mashable's ill-advised declaration that #OscarsSoWhite was "canceled" due to the diverse forecast for this year's acting nominees. (Following a wave of predictable — and warranted — backlash, the site apologized in an edit note and parted ways with the essay's author.)
#OscarsSoBlack also gained traction last awards season, in an effort to highlight previous wins by Black actors in the midst of #OscarsSoWhite. Though some argue that the roles they won for embrace damaging stereotypes, it's worth noting that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry's landmark victories in the best actor categories went down in 2002 — yes, that was 15 years ago.

Now, some users are deploying the hashtag to cheer on their favorite films in the run-up to next week’s nominations; while just as many are pointing to the myriad problems wrapped up in the reductive phrase.

Like most everything aside from zebras and budget Xerox copies, America is far from black and white. The problem of representation in Hollywood is immense and intersectional — we need more women, more immigrants, more people of all colors, physical abilities, sexual identities, means, and experiences telling their stories. In order to come anywhere close to reflecting the diversity of the audience it serves, the entertainment industry needs to embrace more artists of all walks, in addition to the Black talent vying in this year's race.
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The mere fact that three movies featuring Black casts, telling stories of Black lives, warrant news headlines and op-eds like these is indicative of the larger problem. What we're after is world where worthy achievements by nonwhite filmmakers and showrunners aren't treated as rarities by the cultural elite, but as an integral part of a melange of varied perspectives. We've made some progress, but it's not enough. Not even close.

In a country comprised almost entirely of immigrants, where are the stories about making that passage, or the split identities that multiply for generations? (Last year's Brooklyn is a fine example, if not the most colorful.) Or, for that matter, tales of the country's native population, whose voices have been all but silenced for centuries? The National Hispanic Media Coalition released a statement following the Golden Globes calling out the lack of Latino representation among the nominees and winners. Hispanic Americans are the country's largest minority; Asians are the fastest-growing. Gallup released findings this month that more than 10 million Americans identify as LGBT.

A cursory look at the past decade's worth of award-nominated movies, and the math reads like a glaring reprobation. So yes, let’s take a moment to be grateful for the brilliant Black artists finally getting their due this year — before continuing to demand more from our culture machine.

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