You’ll be happy that — barring the expected catastrophe that might occur next Sunday — this is very likely my last piece on Race and the Academy, until 50 years from now when the next film written, directed and starring black people is up for Best Picture. By then, I hope to be living off the grid on an island somewhere harvesting pineapples. Either way, you might not have noticed the trend over the course of the Academy’s history to split the vote when it comes to any Best Picture film that features black vs. white, and/or racism. One film wins Best Picture and another film wins Best Director. The wins for Best Picture have always come from a place of love and redemption (for white people). As in, forgiveness.
In each, there are good white people who represent the better half of humanity, probably the kind Academy voters most identify with; after all, how many Academy voters can you name who are overt racists? Not many. They get labeled with the term because their demographic makeup is what, 95% white? 75% male? But this is not a group that could be called racist in any way. Just as no one, including this website, has ever called any film critics racists, despite what simple minded tweeters have accused us of. Good people, smart people aren’t racists. Racism sounds like a dirty word – one that defines oppression. But the cultural divide between black and white remains. Perhaps we just aren’t ready to reward a film that treats the black characters as the film’s driving force – not for any bad reason but just because it’s something we don’t yet feel entirely comfortable with.
The history says more about what the Academy thinks than anything – the Oscar story, the Academy’s story, Hollywood’s story begins with stereotyping, then follows with white directors doing the noble work of bringing stories of black characters to the mainstream but not being rewarded for it, and in many cases, punished for it. The directors almost always either are left out completely, like Steven Spielberg with the Color Purple, and Bruce Beresford with Driving Miss Daisy, or else they don’t win starting from early on in the season. But you’d think that rule would apply only to white directors telling black stories. Surely when a black director does it, and that film is headed for Best Picture, that director has a great chance shot at winning, right? Right?
When the majority put their votes behind In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy and Crash, that support came from love. They liked those movies. They liked them a lot. Isn’t it funny, then, that somehow, in 100% of the Best Picture winners throughout their history, Best Director has never been included? What is the reason for that?
Norman Jewison made In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story and The Hurricane. Many of his most important films, or memorable ones, one might say, revolved around African American heroes, and subjects of race and racism, to the mainstream. Jewison never won an Oscar in competition. He never won the DGA either. He was given lifetime achievement awards after the fact and only barely came close to capturing the zeitgeist with Moonstruck. It was as though the director did not matter.
Bruce Beresford was never nominated for having directed Driving Miss Daisy, not for the Golden Globe, not for the DGA and not for the Oscar. And yet, Driving Miss Daisy was the runaway winner, the only other film besides Argo to win in latter Academy history without a director nomination. It was as though the director did not matter.
Paul Haggis was nominated for Crash but he could never beat Ang Lee, who directed Brokeback Mountain that year. The split was their best way of handling two “important” movies, one about race, and one that was a groundbreaking look at love. As far as Crash’s Best Picture win, though, it was as though the director did not matter.
Now, here we are once again facing the same situation. Alfonso Cuaron keeps winning director. This has been decided again and again, agreed upon unanimously by all major voting bodies – The Golden Globes, the Critics Choice, the PGA/DGA, and BAFTA. 12 Years takes picture and it is as though the director did not matter.
So my question is, why? What could be the reason for this? First, why is race such a touchy issue at all with Hollywood, film critics and the Academy? Why do not visionary directors get credited when the film is about the subject of race? And why would Steve McQueen not be rewarded? He did get a couple of significant Best Director awards, from the New York Film Critics and from the Southeastern Film Critics. And if Alfonso Cuaron keeps winning director, why would not Gravity win Best Picture too?
I have always believed that voters can’t really like something unless it somehow reflects who they are or who they’d like to be. For instance, what it took for Kathryn Bigelow to win both Director and Picture, to become the first woman to do so, was that she had to make a movie about men, it is a movie a “guy could have directed.” When it comes to film about black characters, the overall idea of the film seems to be appreciated more than the person who brought it to the big screen. When it comes to films directed by minorities – in this case, a black man making a film about black characters – or Ang Lee making a film about Chinese people – it is impossible for voters ever to project themselves into that world, particularly if there aren’t many nice white characters to cozy up to.
The only way, I think, a black director is ever going to win at the Oscars is if he (or she) directs a movie about white characters, but specifically, white male characters — so that no one even really pays attention to his (or her) skin color, ethnic background, or unique “voice.” The movies they like are the movies they see themselves in, or the movies they see in themselves.
That isn’t likely to change any time soon. What we like depends on who we are and where we come from. In the Oscar race it also depends on how much baggage a movie has. Right now, I imagine many voters are fleeing from the baggage of 12 Years a Slave and into the waiting arms of American Hustle, where there is nothing but fun and meaningless trysts here and there – good acting, a big ensemble – easy street.
The burden white people carry is different from the one Hollywood inflicted upon itself by shaping their media output to satisfy a segregated nation. It has taken decades of passive and violent protests, of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to begin the painful process of equalizing our culture. Hollywood has a legacy of doing harm in this regard by reinforcing stereotypes; the sweet relationship between slave and master in films like Gone with the Wind. Happy slaves, happy maids, happy nannies. That’s the way many African Americans were defined by Hollywood.
Upstarts who confronted those stereotypes, like Robert Townsend and Spike Lee were marginalized, mostly. Those who make black films for black audiences, like Tyler Perry, are ignored outright. Only Lee Daniels broke through with Precious, a film about a black character emerging from the squalor and abuse of her own ghetto life. That film won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress but it portrayed a very distinct line between “good” and “bad” black characters. They brought this upon themselves in Precious. There were no mean white overlords.
When racism itself is confronted in a Best Picture winner, the white characters mostly save the day, or certainly help to. In 12 Years a Slave it is the first time we have ever seen the black characters save the day. Sure, people say oh, well, a white dude eventually frees Solomon Northup but that, to me, is a simplistic reading of the film. Northup is the one who tries to get his note out there, stays alive as long as he can, to finally get out.
What’s ignored in all of this is the artistry of the film, the visionary brilliance of it, which has now taken a backseat to the importance of it. Perhaps that’s because in 2013 there were a record number of black filmmakers trying to break through into the Oscar race – films by and about black Americans. Two of the three of them were shut out completely. Only remained and even it wasn’t ultimately good enough for the big city critics to rally behind it (New York and Los Angeles gave their top prizes to other films).
You might be inclined, in the heat of the season, with just one more day of Oscar voting, to begin to see 12 Years as just not that good. That is what we call frontrunner syndrome. With no cuddly warm feel good heroism at its core, just suffering and the bitter truth at the hands of these brilliant filmmakers, voters can’t celebrate something that makes them feel like shit.
They will hate themselves for voting for it because it’s “important,” they will hate themselves for not voting for it because they liked something else better. Or they will relish the chance to deep six the movie in the privacy of their own home, with the blank ballot staring up at them. Should I, or shouldn’t I, they will wonder.
It will be nice to see if 2013 isn’t a one-off, but that, despite how Hollywood continually shuts the door on the opportunities for black filmmakers, Steve McQueen, Lee Daniels and Ryan Coogler have forged a clear path, created a new wave of black filmmakers who tell stories that indeed cross over, without compromising the strengths of those stories. Each of them told of the black male throughout American history – one spent 12 years as a slave, another lived a life of quiet desperation as a butler while the world changed around him, and the last was fatally shot at Fruitvale Station on just one ordinary day in the ordinary life of a young black male.
While the tastes of Oscar voters are primarily and continually focused on white characters doing extraordinary things, these heroes, these characters, these directors, won’t ever win the top prizes. There have been exceptions, like Slumdog Millionaire, Gandhi, The Last Emperor – but in all of those cases the white male director took home the prize along with Best Picture. When it comes to race, they simply can’t unite them.