In these turbulent political times, many have reconsidered the place of high profile awards ceremonies in American culture and society. Few critics, however, seem to note that the Academy Awards has historically operated on a troubling dual message.
Host Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue highlighted this paradox. In it, Kimmel conceded the inability he and the Oscars itself have to heal America, saying, “I’m not the man to unite this country.” However, just moments, later, he would prescribe a plan of action to achieve unity. Sincerely saying “if every person watching this show… took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with and have a positive, considerate conversation… we can make America great again. We really could.” While the latter message was laudable, it appears disingenuous to absolve oneself of accountability for promoting unity and then to go ahead and do it anyway. This conflicting dual message reflects the Oscars’ own modus operandi. Historically, the Academy Awards has attempted to absolve itself of charges of racism by insisting that it lacks the power to disrupt the industry status quo, and then showing us (with Halle Berry in 2001, for example) that it did have the capacity, it simply lacked the willingness.
In 2017, with a record number of diverse nominees, the Academy Awards appeared able and willing to own up to its power to initiate historic change from the pinnacle of Hollywood. The night featured speeches and wins that may have raised more questions than answers about issues such as intersectionality in Hollywood, racial appropriation and decentralization, and the potential of Black producers to produce subversive material in a “White” system, among others.
Moonlight was not immune to a White hegemonic reduction at the Oscars. Prior to the mix-up that resulted in a tainted, yet nonetheless historic Best Picture win, Jimmy Kimmel name-dropped the movie in a “joke” that participated in a historical tradition of reducing LGBT people to their sexual activities. Moonlight, as Oscar voters agreed, is an important and seminal story about a black queer man who explores his sexuality, which does include an encounter with a friend on a beach. The scene in the movie is revelatory and shot as much as an emotional discovery as it is a sexual experience. Jimmy Kimmel’s comment, “The only happy ending was the one in the middle of Moonlight,” diminished the importance of that moment to the movie, to the characters’ underrepresented demographic, and frankly, to Oscar voters. The joke received sparse applause.
The more egregious offense against Moonlight, however, was the Best Picture mix-up, which did a disservice to both La La Land and Moonlight. It served to obviously disappoint the La La Land crew, in addition to obfuscating what should have been an exuberantly historic moment of triumph for Moonlight. Moonlight’s win was a win for independent film. It was a win for the power of compelling stories; it was a win for demographics ignored by Hollywood, and it was a win for the capacity of good filmmaking to break down social barriers and help us to relate to one another, even if the one tasked with doing the relating is a member of the majority, sitting in front of a screen that members of a minority are on.
The experience of relating to on screen leading characters of color was one that La La Land audiences did not have the opportunity to encounter, despite many critics calling the movie’s jazz narrative (in which an assuredly White Ryan Gosling attempts to save jazz) one that should have foregrounded African Americans as both the inventors and protectors of the genre. Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about the premises of La La Land and Hidden Figures saying, “It has been an amazing year for movies. Black people saved NASA and White people saved jazz. That’s what you call progress.” John Legend, an executive producer and actor in La La Land, performed a medley of the film’s nominated songs, which seemed to serve as a conscious racial reclamation of the jazz narrative, if only for a few minutes on the Oscar stage.
John Legend’s involvement as producer of a film widely condemned for decentralizing the role African-Americans should have in a ‘saving jazz’ narrative, raises questions about the constraints of power for producers of color within the Hollywood studio system. A studio system in which White people are the predominant holders of power and White audiences are considered the de-facto market. While it is problematic to place the responsibility for racially policing a film on the solitary African American executive producer, one would think that a performer such as John Legend, who grew up with very intimate knowledge of African-American contributions to musical genres, would have, if not restrained by Hollywood hegemony, suggested a different path for the film.
In her piece “But Compared to What? Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism in School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and the Spike Lee Discourse”, Waheenma Lubiano, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, discusses the ways in which the studio system limits the opportunity for films to be racially “subversive or oppositional”. Lubiano writes, “If a production is to return a profit in the millions of dollars, the likelihood of that production’s remaining oppositional or subversive with regard to race might well be in inverse proportion to the extent the film relies on the support of a large (of whatever races), politically uncritical audience to turn a profit (Lubiano 1997, 101).” Lubiano continues to say that these questions are important to explore given the lack of investors of color in Spike Lee’s (whose films the piece is focused on) projects.
The Academy Awards have long been seen as the pinnacle of recognition for those in the film industry, and more than that, they have served as the confirmation ceremony for an elite class of actors within Hollywood and in the eyes of the public. Larger than an emotional moment of triumph and acknowledgement, an Academy Award has significant monetary, career, and social implications. Those who have won an Academy Award can often obtain more lucrative work, and performers with Academy Awards can parlay their status into endorsements and sponsorship deals, among other things. The monetary impacts of an Oscar are social and demographic in nature. The film industry is one of franchises, stars who appear in movies every year, and an aversion to risk.
When the Oscars gives a person, or story, of color the Academy’s stamp of approval, it represents and precipitates a rise in the value that the film industry as a whole puts on their particular demographic. For people of color and minorities working in the industry who have historically suffered from discrimination and a lack of access to any opportunities, let alone more lucrative ones, an Oscar win has effects far beyond the night of the ceremony. For too long, however, many Oscar nominations and winners offered little hope of a counter-hegemonic value change. With a historic number of nominations and satisfying wins for people of color in 2017, the Oscars offer hope of more inclusive representation and well-deserved acknowledgement.
Wahneema Lubiano, “But Compared to What? Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism in School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and the Spike Lee Discourse,” in Valerie Smith, ed. Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video (London: The Athlone Press, 1997): 97-122