MTV didn’t want to play videos by Michael Jackson and Prince, but eventually they had to. The public had spoken loud and clear.
Right now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which puts on the Oscars, is going through a similar populist reckoning. #OscarsSoWhite made the organization’s heavily old, white and male-leaning demographics unacceptable, and a purging of geriatric voters followed in order to make room for a younger and more diverse membership. This did not go over well.
The result of the response to #OscarsSoWhite is that Moonlight won Best Picture in 2017, and this year’s nominees were the most diverse group yet — more women and people of color were nominated in 2018 than the previous decade combined. This included nods for Get Out, Mudbound and a majority-minority Best Director lineup.
Because nothing threatens white supremacy like Black and brown excellence, the Academy seems to have decided that changes have to be made. The tweets are still talking about the Oscars latest stumble into the new millennium — its recently announced new “Best Popular Film” category.
We’ll just call it the “Separate But Equal” award.
Is it a coincidence that this new category was announced the same year that Black Panther crushed the box office by every statistical and cultural measure, and is considered a front runner for the Best Picture prize?
Yeah, probably not.
The Oscars’ anti-Blackness is nothing new. In fact, it’s about as old as the institution itself.
As Richard Pryor pointed out to awkward laughs while hosting the 1977 awards, “This show is going out to 75 million people. None of them are Black. We don't even know how to vote. There's 3,349 people in the voting thing. And only two Black people: Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte."
In 1988, Eddie Murphy drew a line that’s kept him blacked out of Oscars history despite one of the “most popular” film careers ever. Before presenting, Murphy told the crowd he initially wanted to reject the Academy’s offer to take the stage and hand out an award. He revealed that he told his manager, “I'm not going because they haven't recognized Black people in the motion picture industry."
While he ultimately accepted the gig, he didn’t leave the stage without dropping a few uncomfortable truths: “I'll probably never win an Oscar for saying this... Black people will not ride the caboose of society. We will not bring up the rear anymore, and I want you to recognize us."
Perhaps Coming To America and Trading Places would have won the “popular” title in Eddie’s day, but when Rocky and Driving Miss Daisy are more worthy of highbrow praise than Malcolm X or one of Murphy’s socially conscious comedies, it’s about more than just numbers.
Black Oscar wins spiked in the early 2000’s, from Mo’Nique to Jamie Foxx, to Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. But we’ve all learned that even this precious, prestigious gold can’t stop Black talent from being low-balled, black-balled or outright harassed in the industry.
So, what does this have to do with a Most Popular Film category? It proves that America will undervalue Black talent and achievements at every opportunity, and creating a separate-but-equal award the same year the biggest Black film in history — indeed, one of the biggest cinematic phenomenons in history, period! — is poised to take the coveted top prize seems like a calculated move.
With the current stream of Black excellence currently flooding the gates, and commanding unprecedented attention thanks to the dollars it brings to the table, Hollywood is rushing to adjust its business model so it can still parasite profits from us, while protecting the white supremacist hierarchy that’s been in place for generations.
The Academy won’t give up their gold so easily, even when the rightful winner is written clear as moonlight in front of them. Not until they’re sure how it will affect the price of silver.
It why’s MTV didn’t want to play Michael and Prince, until they had to. Around the same time that MJ was finally able to moonwalk over MTV’s borders, another Mike had to fly to unearth the new millennium’s other Black diamond mine: the NBA.
Basketball proved to be a meritocracy where Black folks could dominate. So, max-contracts were drawn and dress codes were enforced to keep all that color inside the lines.
By now we know that media moves in waves as powerful as physical elements. And with Coogler and company breaking light and sound records with every new project, the old world’s scramble to contain this bold new era of Blackness in the neat lines of the past is doomed to repeat the fate of all other institutions that hesitate to acknowledge prevailing phenomena they can’t kill or bury.
Since the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite gave form to the decades of frustration that built with the decades of snubs, there’s been a clumsy rush to pivot toward appreciating “colorful” films in ways that either appropriate, assault, or insult out of fear of what genuine recognition might reveal.
This “Most Popular” film gag is just another attempt to treat Black excellence like a stain on America’s White tux. They would have left us back at Separate But Equal if they could have. But defining the lines that separate Black and White means writing the rules for the future.
Calling the “best” the “most popular” isn’t an honor. It’s an assault on history. “We will not bring up the rear anymore, and I want you to recognize us."
They recognize us, Eddie.
And that’s exactly why they can’t bring themselves to call us like they see us.
(Photo by Shahar Azran/WireImage)