Almost 30 years ago, Spike Lee stood apart from the rest as a pioneer black auteur shaking up American cinema itself, challenging cultural norms and causing a conversation about whiteness in Hollywood films. This year he’s brought that back with BlackKklansman, and is looking at his first ever Oscar nomination for directing.
It’s a good indication of just how much things have changed that it really doesn’t seem unusual to have six black directors in the Best Picture race this year — something that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago. Each of these extraordinary directors have made films about the black experience in one way or another — from the superhero genre with Black Panther, to criminal justice and the celebration of a beloved African-American writer with If Beale Street Could Talk, to an all-female heist team movie led by Viola Davis in Widows, to the sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, and to a true story about a black undercover police officer who infiltrates the KKK in BlackKklansman. And George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, which is about the shooting of yet another unarmed American citizen as told through the eyes of a teenage girl.
The last time the Oscar race got anywhere close to this was in 2013, when there was 12 Years a Slave (which won), and Fruitvale Station (directed by Ryan Coogler, who is back with Black Panther) and The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels.
The number of films that have been nominated for Best Picture with an all-black cast you can count on one hand, though two of them have won Best Picture in the last ten years. With this many films on offer, and the new inclusion of more Academy members who aren’t white men, and a innovative method of delivering films to broader audiences via Netflix and Amazon — it feels like this year, the line that once stood between black filmmakers and top Oscar categories has been almost completely erased.
And yeah, I get it, perhaps I’m not the writer who should be addressing these breakthroughs, but I am writing it because I’ve been doing this so long I notice when a year comes along that feels different. This feels like history in the making. Ava DuVernay has always said that the focus shouldn’t be on getting the awards industry to approve of you, to be let into their club, but rather to forge your own path as she has done with Array. This year the directors who followed that advice have done both: they forged their own path and won acclaim for brilliantly doing so.
None of these filmmakers this year made movies for the Oscar race, but it’s impossible to ignore that one of those films, Black Panther, tops the charts as the year’s highest grossing film — and sits at number 3 on the all time on the domestic box office chart. This is what we call a wave, a history making wave. An unstoppable force that met an immovable object. For those of us who have been around a while, this is quite something to see.
Many are predicting at least three of the above mentioned films to get into the race, which, again, would be history making. Even two nominated would be history making. Here are the Best Picture nominees directed by black film directors in all Oscar history:
2017 – Get Out, Jordan Peele
2016 – Moonlight, Barry Jenkins
2016 – Fences, Denzel Washington
2014 – Selma, Ava DuVernay
2013 – 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen
2009 – Precious
These are the five times a black director was nominated:
1991 – John Singleton, Boyz in the Hood (not nominated for Best Picture)
2009 – Lee Daniels, Precious (Supporting Actress, Screenplay)
2013 – Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave (won Picture, not director)
2016 – Barry Jenkins, Moonlight (won Picture, not director)
2017 – Jordan Peele, Get Out (won Screenplay)
I don’t know how this year is going to go, but I did not want to let the moment pass without stopping and observing and reveling in how much everything has changed. Does it mean there has been a permanent power shift? We’ll have to put that possibility on ice, see how things play out. The future is in flux because everything is in flux. And it’s a thrilling to witness