MAEVE LAZOR, CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF | MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2017
On Sunday, February 27, three primarily black major motion pictures took home Oscars at the 89th annual Academy Awards, a victory for black cinema in light of recent years when the Academy handed the golden statuettes to white actors and directors who participated in black films such as “Creed,” “Concussion,” and “Straight Outta Compton.”
The decision came as a slap in the face to black actors and directors last year and influenced the decision of Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott the 2016 Oscars. The controversy, whether these decisions were made on the basis of talent or bias, gave way to the twitter trend #OscarsSoWhite, which has more than 18 million hits on Google.
The unrest also influenced Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, who is black, to launch a campaign in January to diversify the organization’s membership, vowing to double the number of women and minority members by 2020. A 2012 report shows that blacks comprise 3% of the Academy, and Asians and Latinos count for just over 2%. With over 6,000 voting members appointed for life, the organization is overwhelmingly 91% white and 76% male, which is greatly disproportional to the groups represented in the films nominated.
Tyrin Stevenson, a junior at Bard who helped organize the Oscar screening at school, who is black, offered his opinion on Isaacs and her presidency. “I did learn something new today, I didn’t know that the president of the Academy was black–that’s interesting. I was not a fan of her speech, it sounded dry. It seemed like she was robotic, not into it or passionate about it, she seems like she is just a face,” he said.
This year, however, was a great success for those who represent groups that have been overlooked by the Academy the past few years, including Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor for the film “Moonlight,” a coming of age story about a young gay black man growing up poor in Miami. The film also won the category of Best Picture, after a mishap where “La La Land,” which won 6 Oscars, was named Best Picture. Ali is the first Muslim actor ever to win an Academy Award.
“Wow. I wanna thank my teachers, my professors,” Ali said.“I had so many wonderful teachers. And one thing that they consistently told me is … that it wasn’t about you. It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You’re in service to these stories, to these characters. I’m so blessed to have had an opportunity.”
Caleb Short, a freshman and film major at Bard was ecstatic about Ali’s win. “Mahershala Ali was absolutely the most deserving, I saw all of the films and he was incredible,” he said. “Films are the most pervasive art form in our society to create change, to wake people up and so there is this balance the Academy has to walk with their power and their responsibility to perhaps give the award to something that will make change…
“I think that’s a factor that should be considered that the Academy makes their decisions not just on the performance and the cinematic work but how people can make change…The Academy realizes their power this year and simultaneously what we are also seeing as an art form there are a lot more roles a lot more opportunities for people of color. They’re getting the opportunities and they’re fucking showing that they’re incredible,” Short said.
Viola Davis received her first Oscar for her role in Denzel Washington’s Adaptation of “Fences.” Davis, who was previously nominated for an oscar for “Doubt” and “The Help,” received a Tony in 2010 for the same role of Rose Maxon that won her Best Actress in “Fences.”
Denzel Washington lost in the Best Actor category to Casey Affleck for his role in Manchester by the Sea, which also sparked controversy due to sexual harassment allegations against Affleck during his time on set shooting a previous film. The idea of talent versus bias is relevant in this instance since an actor should arguably be chosen solely based on his performance.
Producer Ezra Edelman won an Oscar for Best Documentary for “O.J.: Made in America,” which examines the turbulent relations between races in LA throughout the 20th century and the life of football star O.J. Simpson.
“Hidden Figures,” a film about three mathematically gifted black women, (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae), the masterminds behind NASA’s success, did not receive an Oscar for any category. However, the film was still a success, grossing over 152 million domestically. The actors also invited 98-year-old Katherine Johnson, the real-life NASA hero, up on stage to speak. Johnson, who was escorted to the stage by a NASA astronaut, received a standing ovation.
Race in Hollywood has been a problem and lively debate for decades now, and yesterday’s wins for Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, and Ezra Edelman are by no means any form of compensation for the racial inequities expressed by the Academy, but perhaps a step towards progress for film and society. More and more film-moguls, voters, and cinephiles are voicing their dissatisfaction and complaints about the demographics of the Academy, including Liv Soussan, a director and film major at Bard, who called the Academy “a horrible, elitist institution.”
Lotus Velasquez-Rios, a human rights major at Bard, who is black, spoke of the progress of black cinema. “Black film in Hollywood has changed; it has gone from looking at the struggle of being black and being poor to looking at the struggle of being black and being homosexual or being black and being a woman and I think that’s a significant change… It’s a shift because nowadays we’re looking at entertainment through more of a political lens and seeing how everything goes along with it…to give you a solid answer, I’m black and I’m biased of course, but yes definitely a well-deserved win for Moonlight-–black film is really explicit, straight to the point… [The Oscar win] was a bit of an apology [by the Academy] but it was well deserved if you think of the political agenda,” Velasquez-Rios said.
The 89th annual Academy Awards marked a special day in history, among many other days, for black actors, actresses, directors, and writers. The Hollywood race debate is far from over, but it is important for Academy Members, people in the film industry, voters, and students to continue a constructive and much-needed dialogue about the issue.
“It’s more important because everybody’s learning, more people have more faith now, more confidence, and I just hope everyone keep up the good work,” Carle Ashe, the general maintenance manager at Bard, who is black, said. “The Oscars…this time I seen a lot more color than normal, but I don’t discriminate. God bless America.”
Photo courtesy of The New York Times, BET, and The Huffington Post.
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