January 20, 2016
The Facebook memories function—that thingy that shows you your posts from previous years—is good for many things. Seeing how much your kids have grown. Reminding you of that one time you made that “slap your mama” Thanksgiving dinner. Remembering that time when you ranted about the woman in the grocery who randomly touched your hair without permission because it’s “soooo interesting.”
Or…sparking a moment when you realize that, despite a myriad of efforts by a number of people, some things will never change. That’s how I felt last week when, on the same day the Oscars announced this year’s lily white nominees, subsequently snubbing an amazing year in Black filmmaking, my Facebook memories told me that the same thing happened last year. So much so that the articles about the lack of diversity in Hollywood use the same language. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that ran on Slate.com. It was titled:
Now check out this article that ran on Forbes.com in 2014. It was titled:
So this fiber optic deja vu got me to thinking. For 88 years African-American, Hispanic, and Native American directors, screenwriters, actors and actresses have demanded that Hollywood recognize their many contributions to the industry; they’ve demanded to have their stories honored and to have a seat at the proverbial “table.” And for 88 years, those demands have been met with denial, resistance, or in rare cases, patronizing entry for roles and projects that, while well-acted, directed, and written, maintain a perception of people of color that is consumable for a mostly white audience’s delicate artistic palate (see: maids, slaves, angry, abusive mothers, promiscuous basket cases, eccentrics, and thugs).
So why exactly is it a surprise to so many of us that thoughtfully written films with complex characters and nuanced stories; movies that do not center a white person’s perspective in front of the lens or behind it; would not be acknowledged by the Academy?
See there’s something about the inception of a thing that defines it going forward. The foundation of a house establishes the stability of its roof. The way a marriage begins is often indicative of what will show up in the relationship 5, 10, 20 years later. Studies have shown that a child who isn’t taught certain fundamental educational skills by fourth grade will likely struggle in those areas even into adulthood. A country founded on the brutal enslavement of African people will continue to wrestle with race and white supremacy nearly three centuries later.
So umm, what exactly makes Hollywood any different? Hollywood was never designed to include the narratives of people of color. It most definitely wasn’t set up to allow people of color to tell their own stories.
I generally stop knocking on doors when people take all day to answer. Time is entirely too short and dream catching too exhausting.
Even when we are nominated and winning, as in this last Emmy Awards, it’s usually us celebrating each other more than anything else because maybe, just maybe we know that it might take another 30 years before another person of color will hold a statue.
Nevertheless, in 2016, Black filmmakers who want to flood the marketplace with a diversity of images, a plethora of authentic stories that will resonate with large multigenerational, multicultural audiences while remaining true to the culture, don’t really need Hollywood to do that anymore.
Yes, there is the question of resources. How does one work outside of the system and still have sustained success? Well, I can think of at least 10 established African-American actors who have made hundreds of millions of dollars in and for the industry. What if they decided to take the wealth they’ve accumulated and collectively build their own studios and distribution networks? What if another 10 invested in theaters? (There are models for all of this that can be improved upon and scaled up. See: Ava Duverney’s ARRAY, the creation of several TV networks, Tyler Perry Studios, Magic Johnson Theaters).
Will something of that scale be extremely challenging? Yes. Prone to mistakes and failure? Absolutely. If we think we're going to bust out the gate like Paramount or Fox…that's not going to happen (See: OWN Network). The networks of those studios run deep and they've had practically a 100 year head start. But I'm not interested in us asking for a seat anymore. I'm only interested in us figuring out an alternative.
Here's another thing: technology has made filmmaking and the distribution of films significantly—almost ridiculously–more accessible. There are films screening very well at Sundance that were shot on iPhones (see: Tangerine). There are successful web series’ that have thousands, if not millions, of views (See: The MisAdventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae). What if those who have been able to get their now black and blue toes even a little bit in the door of Hollywood, snatch them jokers back, taking the money and audience with them? What if they built their own Netflix-ish, subscription based film distribution outlet, and forced Hollywood to pay to come to us in order to get some of that “diversity” money?
Jada, would it not be better to put your money where your boycott is? And Aunt Viv...I mean, Janet...wouldn't a better approach to the discussion of intentions and motives be to maximize an influential person's "newfound" consciousness by holding them accountable to the convictions they are confessing to have, in their future projects?
I was in a discussion online about this and there was an incredible amount of resistance to the notion that when we demand for our images to be reflected in the dominant culture’s “best of…” categorizing of film (and music and books—don’t even get me started on the publishing industry), we are essentially giving THEM the power to set the bar for greatness; to create the standard. I suppose it’s a truth that makes folks uncomfortable because many don’t want to acknowledge that maybe we’ve laid down our pride and begged for acceptance in all the wrong ways or unnecessarily (Black folks have about trillion dollars in spending power). Oh and although similarly connected to the insidiousness of White supremacy and the prevalence of white male privilege, the fight to be seen in Hollywood isn’t the same as demanding that the government acknowledge the devaluing of Black bodies and do something about police brutality. The latter is an issue of our humanity, the former, a denial of artistic validation that can be resolved in the marketplace.
Replication is not the solution (no "Black" Oscars, per se). INNOVATION is going to be the ticket!
Do Black and Brown people deserve to be “in the room”? Of course we do. Having a diversity of images available is a benefit to everyone. There are a million and one things that EVERYONE—white people, included—can learn and enjoy about our culture through cinematic storytelling. But you can’t get around the fact that being “in the room” means that our work is being validated by those already there–the builders of the room (system). And by demanding to be there we are actually saying that the opinions of those in the room matter, that their determination of what is good or “the best” matters. Why is that?
So hey, if ain’t nobody letting us in, or when they do, we have to step and fetch, shoot or sex our way to recognition, at what point do we stop asking to be there? At what point do we take our talent, our resources, and our audience elsewhere?
Consider this: In NO OTHER field could an investment like that which Black actors, writers, and filmmakers have made in these last 88 years, have these kind of ridiculous returns and not be considered a complete and utter failure. If someone invested a hundred thousand dollars into the stock market and only got a 1/2 of a percent return after 88 years–which by the way is the equivalent of there being only 12 African American Oscar winners out of over 2,900–ANY financial consultant worth his or her salt would say pull your money out STAT! The overwhelming advice would be to invest elsewhere where the returns are greater and much more immediate.
Seems as though Black actors and filmmakers should do the same.