This time last year, we were in the throes of #OscarsSoWhite. The hashtag perfectly captured the outrage felt by people of color over the fact that, for the second year in a row, not a single non-white person was among the 20 acting nominees for Academy Awards. While #OscarsSoWhite became the rallying cry against the whitewashing of the film industry, many rightly pointed out that the nominations (and lack thereof) were the result of deep, systemic lack of representation of people of color — and our stories — in Hollywood.
The backlash dominated the national conversation so thoroughly that even President Barack Obama weighed in. "I think when everybody’s story is told, then that makes for better art," he said. "It makes for better entertainment. It makes everybody feel part of one American family. So I think, as a whole, the industry should do what every other industry should do, which is to look for talent, provide opportunity to everybody.”
In the past 12 months, the powers that be in Hollywood — at every level — took those words to heart. And at 5:18 a.m. EST this morning, we saw the result. When the 2017 Oscar nominations were announced, more people of color — and Black people in particular — heard their names read aloud than any other time in the Academy’s history.
But the story here goes far deeper than just the six record-setting nominations Black actors earned in the acting categories, though that alone is plenty of reason to celebrate. What’s remarkable about this year is the sheer variety among the nominations: six films exploring the full range of the Black experience in America, six actors — most of them Black women — celebrated for their achievements in front of the camera and, perhaps most significantly, three Black filmmakers who made history with behind-the-scenes nominations. Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (in addition to acting nominations for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris), is the first Black filmmaker to earn this trifecta of nods. Bradford Young, who shot Arrival, is the first Black filmmaker to be nominated for Best Cinematographer. Joi McMillion is the first Black woman nominated for Best Editing.
There are more: Kimberly Steward (Manchester by the Sea), Pharrell Williams (Hidden Figures) and Denzel Washington (Fences) each have a chance to take home a Best Picture Oscar as producers. Four (!) of the five Best Documentary nominees are directed by Black filmmakers (Ava DuVernay for 13th, Raoul Peck for I Am Not Your Negro, Roger Ross Williams for Life, Animated and Ezra Edelman or O.J.: Made In America). August Wilson could win a posthumous Academy Award for a play he wrote in 1985, adding it to the Tony and Pulitzer he already won for Fences, proving the work to be a timeless classic.
What is the larger meaning to this long-awaited, long-deserved bounty of nominations? That Black stories matter. Hollywood finally gave Black filmmakers a seat at the table, and in less than 12 months that investment has paid huge dividends — both at the box office and in terms of awards nominations. Shout out to Fox, Paramount, A24, Netflix and the many other studios and distributors for allocating dollars and resources to telling Black stories — authentic Black stories, including ones that refuse to victimize Black folks and with nary a white savior in sight. Their efforts were supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (also a sister, it’s worth mentioning) who threw open the doors of the Academy to a new, far more diverse membership and radically changed the rules to make sure #OscarsSoWhite never happens again. And, of course, a round of applause to audiences who supported these films at the box office, on their streaming services and beyond. Clearly, the reach for these films went far beyond the expected “Black audiences” and captured the hearts of a wide cross-section of global movie watchers.
A lot of progress has been made, but there’s a lot of work yet to do. Asians, Latinos, Muslims and other groups still remain woefully underrepresented. But #OscarsSoBlack should be proof to all the decision makers out there that if more voices are in the room, everybody wins.
At a time when our government looks more like it did in 1957 than it should in 2017, this message is vital. As is the knowledge of how much can change in just one year when the marginalized speak up and mobilize. Hollywood is leading by example, and hopefully the rest of society will follow suit.
(Photos from left: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features, David Bornfriend/A24, David Lee/Paramount Pictures Corporation)