For the last two decades or so, any time the word “Oscars” is mentioned in front of my dad, he’s quick to say, “Spike Lee should’ve gotten it for Malcolm X.” It doesn’t matter what aspect of the awards show we’re discussing; some form of that comment pushes through every time.
Me: “I loved Cate Blanchett’s dress last night.”
Dad: “Spike Lee should’ve gotten it.”
Me: “Did you hear Meryl’s acceptance speech last night?”
Dad: “Yeah. You know, it’s a doggone shame Malcolm X lost.”
You get the idea.
Dad occasionally watches the Academy Awards, but his faith in them was betrayed when “Malcolm X lost” on Oscar night, 1993. And by “Malcolm X lost,” he means: How the hell did Denzel Washington lose to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman? And why was Malcolm X only nominated for two awards: Best Actor and Best Costume Design? He’ll never let it go.
As a kid, I didn’t quite grasp the heart of what he was feeling. I get it now, though. We’re back to #OscarsSoWhite for a second year in a row, and this round feels even more dire than the first. Soon after the Academy announced the nominees on January 14, the Twittersphere blurted out a collective “WTF?” over the fact that not a single nonwhite actor was nominated. If nothing else, I was certain, Idris Elba would score a Best Actor nod for Beasts of No Nation. Nope. Same for Tangerine, featuring trans women of color Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Concussion were all thought to be contenders early on. Instead, all of them were shut out, along with their largely Black casts.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when it comes to awards shows, every minority household has experienced some variation of the “Malcolm X was robbed” moment. When one of our own is nominated, we optimistically rally around the television, despite the odds, only to be let down (time and again) when another award goes to “that same (almost always white) person who was nominated last year.” It’s exhausting. But this year, we didn’t even make it to the nominations list.
It’s a sobering reminder that in the hierarchy of Acceptable American Taste, older white men decide on each tier. That knife cuts both ways, however, and a lack of representation isn’t the only problem. In a recent New York Times story, Brandon K. Thorp pointed out that of the 10 African Americans nominated for Best Actress over the years, nine of them played characters who are either poverty-stricken or close to it. More than a few of them are poor mothers with husbands and boyfriends who are in jail or absent.
Stereotype much, Academy?
Believe it or not, my peers and I aren’t always in the midst of life-altering struggle. I grew up with a loving family. I had a spotted pet rabbit named Trix (yeah, he was named after the cereal). And contrary to popular cliché, my dad was present and involved in my life. We even watched the Oscars together. Oh, and my mom has worked the same job for decades.
Considering the makeup of the Academy — 93% white and 76% male, with an average age of 63 — this kind of blinkered view isn’t all that surprising. Sure, the characters and stories that led to those 10 nominations for Black women are important, but it’s scary that this is the type of role that wins over the predominately white male voters. It’s no wonder that so many top-level actresses of color have headed to television.
So the problem is twofold. How can the Oscars diversify its nominations when people of color are so often relegated to marginalized, one-dimensional roles?
Whether we like it or not, films play an essential role in how we see the world and how the world sees us. And these shortcomings aren't just about who gets invited into Hollywood's most prestigious club. When I swipe through Netflix in search of a great film to watch on a Saturday night, I can’t help but notice that so many of the really good ones — the tearjerkers, the dramas, the comedies, the ones with the most memorable characters — are led by white actors. While there may be something cathartic about lashing out at the Academy, it's Hollywood as a whole that's to blame. We need better stories. We need characters who are layered and complicated. We need producers and writers who hail from a variety of different backgrounds.
Of course, it’s not just a racial issue. We — people of color, women, the LGBTQ community — have unfortunately left our artistic validation in the hands of individuals who don’t seem to care about the reality of American culture. In 2016, I’d no sooner look to Hollywood to define the times than I would ask a teenage boy to explain my period. We are not a country of white, cisgender heterosexuals. So is it really so much to ask that we see this reflected on screen when we go to the movies?
Will I boycott the broadcast on Sunday? Not necessarily. I’ll probably watch the show the same way I have for the past several years: by occasionally tuning in for a total of 30 minutes or so. I’m curious to see how Chris Rock will handle being host, and yes, whether or not Leo does finally take home a Best Actor statuette. I will be happy for him, sure. (It is the defining meme of our time, after all.) But I can't deny that for me, his win will carry with it the Academy’s unconscionable snubbing of Elba.
In case you missed it, it's February and Black History Month is lit. I can’t recall a recent BHM during which so many celebrities were so unapologetically vocal about race. I typically spend this month reflecting on the past, being annoyed with the present, and mustering up hope for a better future. This year’s Oscars fall squarely into that latter, we-have-to-do-better-now category, just as it did for my dad back in ’93. For him, though, there was a happy ending of sorts when, in 2010, Malcolm X was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” notable. Yeah, you could say he approved.
If the government can get it right every once in a while, surely Hollywood can, too.