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Issue #1625      February 5, 2014

Hollywood doesn’t recognise complexity of black life

This should have been the year that black directors dominated the Oscars. In 2013, several black filmmakers produced and directed well-crafted films that examine black life. Of that group, three in particular – Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Lee Daniels (The Butler) – created films of historic significance, each of which explores a different and important period in American history.

These films generated great interest from audiences, with high box office numbers. Each film also generated great interest from critics, with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Each director achieved the calibre of cinematic art worthy of being nominated for an Oscar, but only one, British-born McQueen, has gotten the critical nod of approval from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that can shift careers into the highest echelons of the Hollywood hierarchy.

Clearly the problem of race persists in the film industry, and this problem inhibits mainstream celebration of black achievement in movie-making. This problem has created a binary language of what black life is about and what is worthy of praise. So in the recent past, either the academy is praising the “Bad Negro” – whom Denzel Washington played in Training Day and Forest Whitaker played in The Last King of Scotland – or it is praising the “Good Negro”, portrayed by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness.

By snubbing Fruitvale and Michael B Jordan’s stellar performance as Oscar Grant this year, Hollywood has signalled that it is not ready for the contemporary image of a complex black male, one who is both family man and felon.

Likewise, in The Butler, Oprah Winfrey delivered a compelling portrait of a wife who is both devoted and an adulteress, a mother who is both loving and a lush. Certainly her fine performance, her deft handling of that complexity, deserves at least a nomination, if not a win.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station all express the rich fullness of our humanity. There aren’t any flat, stereotypical characterisations of black life in these films. Instead of celebrating this diversity of black life, Hollywood’s narrow focus on only 12 Years leads to a schism. Why can’t the African American talent that worked on all three films share in the wonder and glow of those golden statues?

Although Kevin Turan of the Los Angeles Times sees a monumental shift in the academy’s attitudes, replacing the old generation (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford) with the new generation (Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Chiwetel Ejiofor), I just see more of the same.

Turin asks his readers to “imagine a world where movie stars of the pedigree of Robert Redford and Tom Hanks give two of the best performances of their careers but don’t get Oscar nominations. Or where Spike Jonze, director of the subversive Her, can’t get a nomination either.”

I ask you to imagine a world where 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and Mother of George compete for the Oscar for best picture. Imagine a world where Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler are battling it out for best director. I want to see Michael B Jordan, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba contending for best actor, and Oprah Winfrey and Lupita Nyong’o in a sisterly struggle for best supporting actress.

These creatives are the best, belong with the best, deserve the best in praise and prizes. Why can’t all of us who delivered so much to this industry be recognised by it for doing so?

Ralph Richardson is a Brooklyn, NY-based filmmaker.

People’s World

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