Well that didn’t take long.
The high has barely subsided on the “12 Years A Slave” creators and cast for taking home Best Film, Best Screenplay adaptation and Best Supporting Actress last night, and the Debbie Downers descend.
For a while, it was okay to see the dark-complexioned, afro-wearing, small-chested woman celebrated and heralded as the Award Season “it” girl as she sashayed stylishly and effortlessly from award show to award show collecting statues for her role playing a sexually and mentally abused hard-working slave in the Steve McQueen-directed film.
She represented to many the anti-European beauty standard with her striking and beautiful features that she wore unapologetic ally and with poise, accepting all the praises with humility but still a confident awareness that she deserved it all.
She would come to represent what is possible for every girl who ever felt not good enough.
Indeed, she wrapped her speech last night with a now- frequently quoted line, “no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”
Only not so fast.
So today, we’re getting more than a fair share of critics pointing out those stats that show that Hollywood as an institution has one of THE worst diversity records.
Some remind us that historically when a person of color, particularly a black actor, does win an Oscar it is for playing a deeply flawed or damaged character or a limited stereotype of what the media has determines represents blacks in America starting with the first
Hattie McDaniel as a mammy in Gone with the Wind
Denzel Washington for playing a corrupt cop in Training Day
Halle Berry for playing a sexual woman who has butt-naked sex with her husband’s executioner in Monster’s Ball
Mo’Nique for playing a vile, drug-addicted welfare mom in Precious
Forest Whitaker as an evil dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland
Cuba Gooding Jr, as a hyper extravagant football player in Jerry McGuire
Jennifer Hudson for playing a neck rolling, and aggressive angry black woman in Dreamgirls
And Ocatvia Spencer as a maid in The Help
12 Years is now getting “The Help” treatment.
The criticism is warranted.
It is quite true that there are many roles out there and many stories to be written, directed and produced that could have a black person cast it in without the role having to be a “black” role.
Hollywood seems stuck on the usual slave, pimp, criminal, side kick narrative when it comes to black characters deemed worthy of celebration.
Nonetheless, I think we can do both. We can be concerned of that sordid complicated love-hate relationship with the Oscars while still celebrating what these wins in particular mean, historically:
In sum, it is THE First time in Oscar-winning history with
A Story WRITTEN by an African American…
Directed by a man from from the African diaspora…
Screenplay adapted by a black man…
And then tells the story of Slaves (like Solomon and Patsy)
from THEIR perspective (not a White author’s version a la The Help)
and not the usual “Great White Hope” perspective (as with Botha, Sankofah and all the other movies where they white protagonist saves the day in the end)
It would be great if we could stop for a second to take in the magnanimous of the occasion and to applaud before launching into complaint mode to point out all that’s wrong with it all and why it’s still NOT good enough or NOT the story we want to tell.
We are too busy being ashamed or disappointed in these REAL life stories. Maybe it is because there have been one too many slave movie.
Maybe we just suffer from Slave movie fatigue.
And while, as some have said we need to stop looking to the Academy Awards and Euro-created institutions for validation, the fact remains the Oscars matter for actors, writers, costumers and musicians who work in the industry and need work. Stories that win will get greenlit in the future. Ignoring it is not so easy.
There is also a prevailing thought that “12 Years A Slave” is also a reminder to African Americans of their history as being considered subservient, sub-human and without dignity.
There is a fear that reminders of this history stalls progress .
Anything that perpetuates or seems to validate feelings of inferiority or perception of the same is rejected.
Who wants to constantly be reminded of negative history?
Understandable, but it’s a one dimensional approach at complex situations.
While many of the recent black actor and actresses who won Oscars did so for playing negative or subservient characters, there is a good number or positive characters that have been nominated at least.
Think Will Smith in Ali, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X or Glory or Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda or Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption or Million Dollar Baby— all portrayed strong heroic characters. Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile were complex sympathetic characters.
And those who won for playing flawed characters did so brilliantly and their masterful portrayals deserve accolades and praise even if we don’t like their characters.
There are hundreds of villains who win awards from the majority race too. This year’s Oscar race for Best Actor included at least two criminal lead characters: The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustler.
So can we celebrate and acknowledge brilliance, even in the difficult stories, while at the same time embrace a future for broader and more complicated stories that have nothing to do with slavery, pimpery , segregation , criminal and all the other “negative” characterizations that for long have defined “blacks in America.”?
Because at the end of the day the point is quite valid that there is room for many other roles:
Give me Life of Pi, The Black Swan, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Eyes Wide Shut, and American Beauty.
Bring on more Biopics or adaptations of REAL people like that of Coach Carter, American Gangster, and the forthcoming one about Nina Simone.
I mean think of all the great adaptations of real people’s lives that have been nominated for Oscars in modern era: The Queen, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, Saving Private Ryan, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Syriana, etc.
When will we see the Ben Carson story? I’d love to see The Condi Rice or Will and Jada’s love story.
There are PLENTY intriguing people who had amazing lives that can be captured.
There is plenty of room for other stories.
It’s time that we start seeing them made.