It took a hashtag, a boycott, and a massive membership shift to make the machine that drives the Oscar race stop, look, and listen to a call for change, and reconsider their long-established patterns.
In a typical year, Moonlight would be the only film made by black filmmakers about the African American experience that would have been nominated for Best Picture. Maybe Fences. Denzel Washington knows what I know, what anyone who follows this race knows: making films about the black experience, telling an honest story – these films must appeal somehow to white audiences because those tastemakers decide who is in and who is out. This is true in the early phase of the Oscar race when critics and bloggers shape the narrative and it’s true when the industry decides the best of the year. But this year was different. These films, these nominees stand in stark contrast to the patterns set for going on 89 years now. Knowing the Academy, by next year the grumbling will have gotten louder and the selections will snap back to their organic form, where stories about white heroes are the ones that rise to the top of the pile. No one will be allowed to complain because look at 2016!
And indeed, look at 2016. Academy members will tell you that it’s the movies that got better. They won’t tell you that it was the shift of perceptions. But I can safely say that it is about perceptions. That is what changed because it had to. Change is messy. Change must be forced. Seeing this disparity forced the Academy to make dramatic changes and everyone was acutely aware of that fact heading into this year. Maybe in another year Hidden Figures would not have made it in. Most of us looking at the race were worried it wouldn’t have a shot because it is not their usual thing. Films about women, and especially black women, do not get recognized by the Academy. There was The Help, but that really was an ensemble of white and black characters. There was Beasts of the Southern Wild. But when has there ever been a movie where the central characters are black female math geeks? We know it’s unprecedented. Black women who grew up seeing themselves portrayed as unimportant background figures – the odd judge here or there, the lawyer, the cop on television. But in movies?
When Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a kid, her mind worked so fast she counted everything she saw. She wanted to read so badly that she followed her brother to elementary school. Because where she lived at the time did not allow black students to attend the high school, her family had to move to a different town to accommodate Katherine’s brilliant mind. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson were also former teachers who gravitated to NASA out of necessity. They were needed to perform essential calculations. Hidden Figures is important not just in the history of black women, but in the history of early career women overall whose stories do not get told.
Seeing Hidden Figures with a real live audience makes all the difference. Regular people who actually have to shell out their hard-earned bucks to go the movies – which is what movies are supposed to be – to learn American history that for once isn’t shameful. For once, it’s something to be proud of, to celebrate, and yes, to award.
With three brilliant actresses at its center, there isn’t a moment in Hidden Figures where the women disappear behind the yessir/nosir portrayals of black characters throughout Hollywood’s history, most notably Hattie McDaniel’s, who was brilliant in Gone with the Wind. Here, you have a pivotal scene where Kirsten Dunst finally gives Octavia Spencer the job of supervisor, something she’s already asked for, even demanded. Rather than fall all over herself thanking Dunst for her “kindness,” Spencer knows this is something she’s worked for. That is one of the best and most unexpected scenes in the movie. Each of the three characters has their moment of defiance and, sure, it’s probably dramatized for effect, but it’s something we all need to see.
It’s worth noting that three Oscar nominees this year come from The Help. Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are in the supporting category, which one Academy member I saw actually had the nerve to punish Davis for. He won’t vote for her because he feels that she’s supposed to be in lead. In 2011, when she was up for Lead for The Help, they said the same dumbass thing: she was supposed to be supporting and not lead. Emma Stone would never have been punished for anything she did in The Help. Only the black characters were punished, like Hattie McDaniel was punished, for taking one of the rare opportunities Hollywood afforded women of color.
History is not waiting for the Academy to catch up. Audiences certainly aren’t either. Hidden Figures got the rare A+ from Cinemascore, which should tell Hollywood loud and clear: “more of this, please.” Hidden Figures is that movie that soothes the aching heart because it really does show a part of America that didn’t see color, at least for the most part. Of course, they were deep in the throes of segregation and couldn’t even touch the same coffee pot as a white person without suffering withering frowns, but NASA made good use Katherine Johnson. They made use of her because of her mind and because of John Glenn’s faith in her ability.
The success of Hidden Figures exists solely because people want to celebrate three brilliant women who were invisible in history up to now. They are American heroes because of what they endured to get where they were. It’s a film that women all over the country, and men too, believe it or not, stand up and cheer for because it is about something important, about people who were important and imposed rules of society that held them back for too long. The modest steps forward each of them attains comes from their good work, but all could have and should have been able and allowed to aim higher.
You see, there is very little that is spontaneous in the Oscar race. Perhaps most people don’t know that. The race is controlled by a group of very talented, very bright publicists who know how to get the right movies delivered at the right time to get those nominations.
Films must run the gauntlet to first appeal to the growing group of bloggers and critics, who are mostly all white men. Then they have to appeal to the foreign press, of all things, and then on to the industry. With the exception of the SAG/AFTRA voters, white-themed films about white people and their white people problems rule the day. 90% of the time this is the case. Getting even one film in the race with even any major black characters or black filmmakers at all is nearly impossible. The default standard is the white standard. What defines a great movie or a great performance is generally how well people watching respond to that. There is less concern with, say, whether or not Hispanic or black audiences (who really spend a lot of money to buy tickets to Hollywood movies) see themselves in the film. Their experiences are often secondary to the white experience.
Thus, we never seem to run out of true stories about true heroes who are almost always white and male. There is no point in pretending anything different. That is simply the reality. I have spent almost twenty years – up to and including this year – arguing with people, usually white men, who are annoyed by this characterization and always blame the movies, never the perception that drives the votes. It’s always “the movies just weren’t good enough.” Yeah, I don’t buy that. I never have. I could go over the stats with you, like how only Halle Berry has ever won in the lead actress category in 89 years.
I could further say that no black director has ever won in 89 years. How only two black screenwriters have won. How it took 89 years for the first black female editor to be nominated (Moonlight) or the first African American cinematographer (Arrival). And indeed, many complain that it isn’t fair to just focus on black vs. white. But I have always felt our relationship with African American filmmakers and audiences is different because we built this country on the backs of slaves. For hundreds of years we used black people as slave labor and sex slaves, treated them like property and then, even after they were freed, locked them into a system where they simply could not ever access the American dream. We have not settled this conflict within our history, and it certainly isn’t settled now.
Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have just successfully launched a right-wing coup of our government. Bannon’s idea for America is widely known. He’s overridden Trump because Trump lacks any particular ideology or basic grasp of policy. He does what he’s told. Bannon, however, longs for the days before Civil Rights and the feminist movement “ruined things” for men like him. For Bannon, the election of Barack Obama was one of the darkest days in American history. He sought to turn the clock back and that is exactly what they’re doing now as each day’s horrors unfold. Still, Obama’s influence on American life will be on full display when the Oscars are held in late February. In 2015 he awarded the Medal of Freedom to Kathrine Johnson. Hidden Figures screened at the White House. Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures have made Oscar history and they will always be linked with our first black president.
What I love about Hidden Figures is that it’s an important cinema, it’s a very fine film, and it’s an entertaining movie. It does what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. It gives back more than it takes. Because of its success, the next time a studio is faced with the question of whether or not they should make a film about a black characters who aren’t maids or drug addicts or slaves, but are actual living breathing people, hopefully they will look at the box office of Hidden Figures, $105 million and counting, and they won’t hesitate to say yes next time.