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The Year the Oscars Went Black

Are this year’s Oscar nominations a political attempt to ward off accusations of racism? 

To no one’s surprise, this year’s Oscar nominations include several figures who are—how should I put this?—not-white (non-white is generally considered patronizing and colored, though acceptable in the United States, is offensive in Britain and elsewhere in Europe).

The academy has suddenly opted for ethnic diversity. Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris and Octavia Spencer were announced as nominees, along with directors Barry Jenkins, Raoul Peck, Herbert Peck and Ava DuVernay—they are all not-white.

And, as if to diversify the mix further, three of the films nominated have distinctly black themes. There is even a nomination in the documentary category for DuVernay’s film 13th, which is about the mass incarceration of African Americans.

This is the academy’s equivalent of affirmative action—or positive discrimination as the British call it—that is a policy involving action favoring those who tend or have tended in the past to suffer from discrimination of some sort, often racism. It is a deliberate method of righting wrongs and has been serviceable instrument of US social policy since 1961.

Clearly, the academy has been slow to realize the benefits of affirmative action, and the chastisement of last year has, it seems, prodded it into hurry-up mode. Now we see immediate, dramatic results. And a black-themed film will almost certainly win Best Picture, with either the winner of the Best Actor and Best Actress (this sexist term will surely come under attack soon) a not-white person.

I should say at this point: I am not disappointed that the academy has opted for this. I’m just amused that it’s made its motives so transparently obvious. This is no gradual embrace of cultural diversity in the 21st century, less still an organic development that reflects our changing world. It is a panicky defensive maneuver, a manifestly political attempt to head off the kind of censure of last year and perhaps convince the world that the institution is not as mired in racism as many suspected after the embarrassing whitewash of 2016. Remember #OscarsSoWhite?

It is, of course, possible that the academy has been objective, analytical, non-partisan and unaffected by the torrent of political and social pressures that have been gathering over the past 12 months. Possible but extraordinarily unlikely. This year’s awards are the most political in history.

Worse: the winners will suffer a slight indignity. Like the victors of Wimbledon in 1973, when the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) withdrew all its members, or when the medalists at the 1980 Olympics boycotted by the US (or the medalists in 1984, for that matter, when Russians didn’t appear). In other words, their accomplishments will be devalued by the unusualness of the circumstances.

So the academy, in its zeal to appear enlightened and culturally inclusive, has actually done a disservice to black and other ethnic minority artists. Their accomplishments will forever be remembered with a caveat: “Oh yeah, they won their Oscar in 2017 when the academy went black!”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: mattjeacock