In 86 years of Oscar history only two African-American directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar — John Singleton and Lee Daniels. It isn’t that the Academy leans towards white American filmmakers to be exclusionary. It’s more a function of the fact that black directors in America, or even white directors making films about black characters, often tackle subjects laden with sensitive topicality that makes them too hot to touch, like Spike Lee. It isn’t easy to make a film that can aggressively address substantial subjects and still cross the black and white divide without doing anything that may seem offensive to either side. Add to that, trying to please the critics (who are 99% white), and making money to boot. It is as though the past, present and future stack up like heavy bricks on the back of every minority filmmaker but especially so with black filmmakers here in America. That there are at least two African-American directors “in the conversation” this year (Daniels and Ryan Coogler) is a impressive miracle in itself. That British-born Steve McQueen has now emerged to lead the field means we could be witnessing history in the making — not just in terms of another nomination, but with a possible milestone win as well.
Make no mistake about it, winning an Oscar won’t make Steve McQueen or 12 Years a Slave look better than they already do. It would make the Academy and Hollywood look better. No one will be able to say McQueen won BECAUSE he was black. No one will be able to say the film doesn’t deserve it.