There were 305 films eligible to win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. If they had properly reflected the American population, more than 150 would have been directed by women, 45 by African Americans, 50 by Hispanics, and dozens more by LGBT individuals, Asian Americans, Native American and other minorities. This was, unsurprisingly, not the case. Every tier of the Hollywood mechanism remains blindingly white and predominantly male. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), whose voting body of over six thousand film industry professionals awards the annual Oscars, reflects this industry — your qualifications are your beeline to a membership card. It’s voters, according to a 2012 poll, are 96% white, 74% male, and register at an average age of 63.
When Oscar nominations were announced on January 14, there was a noticeable underrepresentation of black, LGBT and female talent — noticeable, but considering the numbers, by no means alarming. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started going viral, and the seemingly thoughtless nomenclature of our amnesiac cultural commentary cycle promptly decided that ‘Oscars diversity crisis’ would be an apposite term for an insidious, systemic, centuries-long suppression of black, female and minority talent across every platform of an American empire at the hands of white men in power. Such is the nature of modern cultural discourse – perniciously simplistic and noxiously flat.
Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett-Smith and her husband Will vowed to boycott the ceremony in protest. The oldest, whitest, most removed acting nominees (namely Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine) were asked for their opinion, and when they responded with the expected, headline-grabbing ignorance, a collective pile-on ensued that many seemed to relish with a glean of malicious intent. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, swiftly implemented changes that would oust stale members, ensure a wider, more representative annual intake of members, and quell rabid and unwanted media attention. In keeping with the great American tradition of vigorously reporting on the symptoms of an issue and doing nothing to solve its root, the lateral, industry-wide concerns about diversity have been almost totally unresolved.
Let us be clear. The Academy has a diversity problem. The film industry has a diversity crisis.
It’s also worth remembering that despite the media’s attempts to flatten and conflate terminologies with issues that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t only mean ‘inclusive of black people’. Hollywood’s diversity crisis does not begin and end with the inclusion of actors and directors of colour at the Oscars. The staggering underrepresentation of LGBT, Asian American, Native American and, most staggering, women, remains an endemic cultural setback that remedying the Oscars alone can’t fix.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite’s epidemiologic spread into the zeitgeist, a leading argument frequently cited by simpletons in internet comments sections asserts that nothing black directors, performers and technicians delivered last year was ‘Oscar-worthy’. The argument is moot for reasons that are beyond obvious, but it does pique an even more interesting line of query: what do we mean by ‘Oscar-worthy’? If we mean cloyingly manipulative tale of resilience (Room) or decadent period drama (The Danish Girl) or hagiographic biopic (Steve Jobs) or gimmick-laden feat of bravura (The Revenant) or grandiose technical achievement (Mad Max: Fury Road) or sallow multiplex cheesiness (The Martian), then indeed, this year’s films by black artists do not appeal to the Academy’s well-established bad taste.
It’s also worth noting that when the Academy’s members choose to reward black excellence, they reward stories of black suffering and resilience. Significant Oscar nominees like 12 Years a Slave, The Help and Precious represent specifically black issues in a way that’s been palatable to white audiences and voters. They depict blackness as whiteness has known it — enslaved, subordinated, piteous. Not to their discredit. They’re each considered significant works of black cinema, but not coincidentally they’ve also gone on to great success at awards ceremonies presided over by white people. This year’s films by or starring people of colour were disarmingly free from that same mode of empowerment. Some told stories of black oppression, and some of black history, but most significantly, they just told good stories, and they told them well.
Those stories weren’t deprived of their specificity either — their blackness was entrenched and their style suggestively different from other forms of cinema. Their function wasn’t to help white people feel self-righteous about liking them. With each of the films listed below, that mode of spectatorship is virtually impossible. That’s why they weren’t nominated. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean you can’t watch them. By watching — and paying for — films that are produced by a diverse range of talent, you send a message to a racist institution in the form they’re most alert to: your eyes and your money.
Using Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as Chi-Raq’s ur-text, Spike Lee restyles a bout of invective about gun violence in Chicago’s lower-class urban neighbourhoods as a bawdy Greek comedy, filling the gaping two-and-a-half-Millennia crevasse with both a clear-eyed sense of history’s injustice and a celebration of black culture’s wonderful distinctness. In Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata ends a war by insisting that women on both sides withhold sex from their indignant husbands until a peace agreement is struck. In Chi-Raq, the wine-bowl of the Acropolis is replaced by a glass of rosé, over which the vital women of Englewood, whose children pay with their lives for a violent gun war, flip it into a battle of the sexes. Rather than reduce its women to the sum of their sexual agency, it recognises their powerlessness against brutish physicality, and characterises its men as boorish sex-hounds driven mad by newfound chastity. But humour doesn’t gloss over its indictment of barbarity, nor the blows of violence that amplify its urgent and explicit call for systemic change which rings out clear as day. By its conclusion, when Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmot wave their wand over Chi-Raq and restore it to the fair Chicago it has never been, we realise that Aristophanes’ comedy, for all its insight, follows an unfeasible dream logic: it has the sting of tragedy. Rent it online.
As two sex workers traversing LA to shake down a skirt-chasing, two-timing lover, trans actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Maya Taylor set out on the wildest goose chase since Kate and Cary turned their back on Baby. This palpitating screwball was shot entirely on an iPhone, with hyperdrive colour grading and a few added filters giving it the syrupy glow of an Insta at sunset. It’s fast and loose and reckless, and so are they: Rodriguez a high-pitched cyclone tearing through the streets as fast as her feet will carry her, mouthing off at near-incomprehensibly supersonic speeds; Taylor, warm and dissipating, the realist to her rage, the straight woman to Rodriguez’s kicking, punching, declamatory madcap heroine. Their milieu of shop-dwelling outcasts is vibrant with a liveliness and colour that makes most of today’s multiplex comedies look like cobbled-together scrap heaps of fart jokes. The denouement — set in a donut shop — is lightening in a bottle. Available to stream for free on SBS OnDemand.
Straight Outta Compton
Take a moment to think about movies that portray black history. Your mind likely jumped to The Color Purple or Selma or Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Now consider that the birth of hip-hop is one of the most significant cultural milestones within that history, and that N.W.A. were seminal in its creation. It only follows that Straight Outta Compton, directed with startling intensity by F. Gary Gray and produced by the surviving members of the pivotal rap group, is as significant a record of black history as any of the aforementioned films. As Dr Dre and Easy E, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell transcend mere impression to give performances of surprising poignancy, but it’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s turn as the reluctant Ice Cube (and his irl son) that stand out — reflective, fiery, enormously creative. The film — which had the smarts to place the locus of police brutality not in black crime but in white oppression and perception — was a surprise hit for Universal both critically and commercially, racking up $200M+ at the US box office, and proving especially popular amongst minority crowds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Oscars only nominated its white screenwriters. On DVD.
Beasts of No Nation
True Detective helmer Cory Joji Fukunaga gave Netflix its first bona-fide awards contender with Beasts of No Nation, about a West African boy orphaned by war before he finds a powerful and consuming solace in its warfare. The Oscars ignored it, of course, but viewers didn’t. It racked up over three million views on the streaming giant within its first week of release, and (at least according to the algorithm that sorts my library) is still being watched voraciously across the platform. Idris Elba, whose coarse Commandant trains child soldiers for guerrilla warfare in the jungles of West Africa, won a SAG Award for his portrayal, violent and bursting with hubris. But it was Ghanaian child actor Abraham Attah’s leading performance that should have turned heads. His arc from innocence to indoctrination is the film’s centrifugal asset, and he performs it with the gravity and vitality of an actor three times his age. Stream it on Netflix, obv.
Words by Jaymes Durante
Image by Natalie Thompson