When it comes to celebrating Black artists and stories, the Oscars still have a long way to go

Lionsgate/Courtesy

The 2019 Academy Award nominations were released Jan. 22, and as with recent years, the conversation surrounding this year’s awards race involved much more than “snubs” and “surprises.” In many ways, this year’s batch of nominees was one of the most diverse we’ve seen, as films centered on people of color, such as “Black Panther” and “Green Book,” took center stage.

Yet, despite the several moments of progress that were highlighted through this year’s nominees, it is clear that the academy still has a long way to go in recognizing films that are not only made by exemplary Black artists but represent Black audiences in sensitive yet empowering ways. And Hollywood still has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the production and distribution of Black narratives that create, not stifle, progress in on-screen representation.

Of course, that’s not to say there were no significant moments that demonstrated representational achievements; As mentioned, Marvel’s superhero box-office smash “Black Panther” received six nominations, including best picture. The film, featuring an ensemble of primarily Black actors, was also hailed as the first comic book film to be nominated for best picture.

That’s not the only superhero film worth noting, though. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” received a nod for best animated feature. Featuring the on-screen debut of comic book favorite Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the film may not center race, but it surely doesn’t ignore it. With an Afro-Latinx teenager as its lead, it’s a testament to the power of representation in animated films in addition to traditional live action.

Moreover, “BlacKkKlansman” was nominated for six awards, including a landmark best director nomination for veteran filmmaker Spike Lee. Lee, who is responsible for some of the most significant contributions to cinema over the last three decades, from 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” to 1992’s “Malcolm X,” was long overdue for some individual recognition. Not only does “BlacKkKlansman” mark his first nomination for best director, but the film was also his first to be nominated for best picture.

The nominations for “BlacKkKlansman” are heartening. They tangibly recognize a film by a director who has long been acknowledged as an artistic visionary for his pointed cinematic critiques of issues such as race relations, urban crime and systemic poverty — after all, the academy did recognize Lee with an Academy Honorary Award in 2015 for his contributions to the industry.

At the same time, the nomination for Lee, while significant, illuminates a rather dangerous pattern of exclusion when it comes to the awards ceremony’s recognition of Black filmmakers. In the more than 90 years of the award’s existence, only six Black directors — including Lee — have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Directing.

None have won.

It’s frustrating evidence of the fact that while Black stories are gradually being recognized, the academy has yet to award the Black filmmakers who have given us some of cinema’s most iconic milestones.

But of course, the best director award is not the only space where the academy consistently falls short in recognizing Black excellence in filmmaking. The Oscars have notoriously snubbed Black talent in technical, acting and writing categories, but the most glaring omissions often occur when deserving films are left out of the awards conversation altogether.

It’s not as if 2018 had a shortage of brilliant films that featured plenty of Black talent both on-screen and behind the camera. Boots Riley’s summer hit “Sorry to Bother You” intricately blended social satire and absurdist humor to create an incredibly poignant dark comedy that recognized issues at the intersection of race and class. Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting,” starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, was a critically acclaimed buddy comedy that also effectively incorporated commentary on police brutality. Neither film was nominated in this year’s selection.

Perhaps the most painful omission in the best picture race this year is Barry Jenkins’ beautiful adaptation of a 1974 novel by James Baldwin — “If Beale Street Could Talk” is Jenkins’ gorgeously shot, heart-wrenching drama that examines the impacts of the criminal justice system through the lens of a soft and quiet romance. While the film did receive nominations for best original score, adapted screenplay and supporting actress for Regina King, the fact that Jenkins’ follow-up to the 2016 best picture-winning “Moonlight” didn’t score a nomination in the biggest category is a shocking oversight on the part of academy voters.

But the most upsetting part of the academy’s recognition (or lack thereof) of Black stories isn’t in its snubs, but the racially tone-deaf, white-washed narratives it often chooses to recognize. It’s no secret that the academy has long favored traditional, idealistic takes on race relations that often lack nuance — takes that oftentimes come from white perspectives. This year, one of the best picture frontrunners happens to be Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” a comedy-drama about reforming racist bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who befriends a Black pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), when Lip is hired to drive Shirley on a concert tour through the 1960s Deep South. The film has been riddled with its fair share of controversies, but none of them seem to be slowing its momentum to a quite-possible best picture win.

In addition to the film’s faults in both script and style, “Green Book” offers a watered-down take on “solving racism” told through a white perspective; with a picture-perfect presentation of a blossoming interracial friendship, the film argues that our many existing issues surrounding race can simply be solved by “getting along.” Not only is it misguided, but the message behind this film, as is the case with plenty of other Oscar-bait movies, is willfully ignorant of Black perspectives when it comes to representing politics, culture or relationships in cinema.

While this year’s batch of Academy Award nominations has had more than its fair share of both representational achievements and snubs, it’s important to acknowledge that Black filmmakers still face immense obstacles while navigating the entertainment industry. Ultimately, the Oscars’ progress in the recognition of Black excellence may only be a small step toward more and better representation for Black artists in cinema, but it’s a symbolic, historic and impactful one nonetheless.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected] .