In the light of the recent controversy surrounding the Oscar's lack of "blackness," the appellation "racism" has been tagged on to the debate. But for me, the word opportunity leaps to mind... or should I say, the lack of opportunity.
When the Oscars commenced on May 16, 1929, there were no black people basking in the white light of the red carpet in line for a gold-plated statuette. It wasn't until 10 years later, Hattie McDaniel, along with her escort, found herself at a segregated table for two, gone from the wind of her collaborators, and the industry in general, while being reminded, time and again, that her nomination and subsequent win for best supporting actress showed the strides the industry was making to overcome racism. It would be another 28 years A.O. (After Oscar), before Sidney Poitier is the first black leading actor to be nominated.
Forty-three years A.O., an Oscar nomination for best picture is finally given to a black film, Sounder. Hollywood, it seems, recognizes black film and black filmmakers, but like a distant lover, never close enough or long enough to forge a meaningful relationship. This year, many people are upset that Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, was snubbed, calling it racism... but the film itself was nominated. Is it racist to nominate the film but not the director? The bigger question is, does racism play a part in determining who gets nominated and who doesn't?
There is no question that white Americans are still the greater population in this country, posses most of the power, and the wealth, so, unsurprisingly, the predominate image on the silver screen is white. The majority of story lines produced by Hollywood are braved and suffered and transformed by mostly white actors, directors, writers, and producers. In recent years, there has been more "black film" produced than in the past, and at least one each year is embraced by the mainstream and gets nominated.
This year it's Selma, a perfectly wonderful example of a really good film about a flawed Ghandi-like hero, who is a Samson to the Goliath of racism, segregation, and the brutality of Jim Crow. Hollywood has successfully produced many films framed by anti-racist or pro-integrationist story lines. I'm going to guess that since Gone With The Wind, Hollywood realized films about racism and segregation pull at the heartstrings of everyone and hopefully serve to purge a sense of guilt. Still, in Oscar's 87-year history, only six so-called black films have been nominated for best picture.
Why only six in all that time? Racism or box office? When a new movie is released, directed and/or acted by Americans of African descent, mostly the members of that tribe are the first to enthusiastically go out to witness the miracle and spread the word. I can only guess where the same film ranks on the "must-see" list for others outside the tribe. Film buffs and some industry folk will make an effort to see it, but most civilians, I suppose, will probably wait for it to appear on Netflix, if they see it at all. Is that racism? Is it racist to prefer country music over the blues? Or is it simply a classic case of tribal antipathy toward the unfamiliar, in favor of gravitating to what you know? "Black film," unless it's lucky enough or creative enough, or timely enough to build a life of it's own, hangs subjacent to "white film" on Hollywood's financial score board... aided and abetted by the supposition that so-called black film has no foreign market. Is this pride or prejudice?
A limited box office, exacerbated by the production of fewer films, means black film is less commercial; thus, fewer potential investors; thus, less commercial; thus, fewer investors, etc., etc. -- a maddening catch-22. Commercial doesn't celebrate philanthropy; it celebrates sales. In light of all the black stars that shine, from Barak Obama or Oprah Winfrey to LeBron James or Beyonce, I have to believe that this is not racism; not like the racism faced by the citizens depicted in Selma. This is not blind hatred. This is cognizant capitalism. If black life put butts in the seats at a high rate, black film would be regarded as a high commodity. If black people ran Hollywood or ran the world, the images on the screen, the fantasies, the escape, would be mostly black, and maybe white people would be running around crying, "racism!" (Kinda like what some white folks might have feared after Obama's election.) I do believe that racism still exists in many facets of our lives, and that Hollywood, crowned by the Oscars, has come a long way to overcome racism in the industry. Its progress, however, is akin to half steps to the wall. We never quite get there.
The complexity of commerce and a lack of social empathy contribute to an industry hesitant to support black film on an equal footing with white film. Ironically, filmmakers of color are most successful, recently, producing films about the struggle for freedom and equality or the ravages of poverty. But this is not the stuff of escape or fantasy. This is the spectacle of harsh realism. Hollywood is in the business of make-believe -- that's how it makes its money. But when it comes to black film, the harsh reality is this unwritten business of "black film"/"white film." Like Hattie McDaniel at the Oscars, "black film" finds itself segregated from the rest of the industry, in another part of the playing field, away from the mainstream audience.
However, despite the controversy, and an overall lack of opportunity, Ava and the incredible cast and crew of Selma got paid to make the movie they wanted: a great movie about a great man, that's getting a great deal of attention. Ava's film is part of The Dream. Thanks to Selma, voices from the past, augmented by those of the present, are being heard; an important message is being echoed from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, like voices crying out of the wilderness, to let us know that a change is gonna come if we can only get in touch with the better angels of our nature.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that The Color Purple was the first black film to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture. In fact, Sounder was the first black film to be nominated, which brings the total number of so-called black films nominated to seven.