Hollywood and black moviegoers have always had a somewhat, to borrow a phrase from the ubiquitous Facebook, complicated relationship. Nowhere has this complexity been thrown into more stark relief than during the awards season, when the entertainment industry anoints the actors and vehicles it deems worthy of accolades and the public’s attention.
Which brings us to the contentious and unpredictable Oscars race. The Academy Award nominations for 2010 were announced, and as expected, they did not contain a single black nominee in any of the major categories — the first time this has happened in roughly a decade, and certainly since Halle Berry and Denzel Washington simultaneously won the top honors in 2002. This is a curious development, considering that the movie industry relentlessly promotes its cultural sensitivity and political correctness.
Ah yes, the Academy Awards: Hollywood’s ornate fete to its own monumental ego. Many movie lovers rejoice in the pomp and ceremony of the hours-long marathon display of self-congratulation; others just watch because we’re experiencing football withdrawal. Along with the endless scrutiny of who is wearing what, the inevitable controversy will erupt about which movies are “Oscar-worthy”, and whether the Academy has done enough to ensure its nominees are adequately representative of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America.
No doubt the Oscars’ overlooking of black industry players this year will come in for sharp criticism, accompanied by hand-wringing and amorphous pledges to do better. Yet the ensuing platitudes are likely to omit a very important detail: with a few notable exceptions, 2010 was a figurative wasteland for black cinema.
WATCH THE ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS ANNOUNCED:
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By no means should this imply that quality black films do not exist — plenty do, and the industry is replete with examples of excellent movies with black actors and directors at the helm. The principal problem is that for every emotional Eve’s Bayou or Precious, there’s a proportionately farcical Soul Plane or a Lottery Ticket. In short, much of what is considered marketable fare in Hollywood skews toward the comedic or romantic variety with an urban (and often buffoonish) flavor. While many laudable and noteworthy independent black films (such as the little-seen Night Catches Us) do get made, they often debut to minuscule audiences, virtually non-existent industry buzz and sharply limited distribution. Many have talented yet unknown actors and directors that lack name recognition and track record that brings in audiences. Suffice to say, most well-made black movies are hard-pressed to find financial success and mainstream accolades.
It’s not difficult to fathom why. A thoughtful 2009 New York Times article accurately detailed the state of contemporary black cinema and what continues to hamper its development. Despite the commercial and critical successes of Mr. Washington, Ms. Berry and especially Will Smith — all of whom have enjoyed a variety of roles that steadfastly defy stereotyping — Hollywood continues to view black moviegoers through a woefully circumscribed prism. To them, black movies are less mainstream products than they are niche. And let’s be frank: the overwhelming majority of black consumers give them ample reason for doing so.
Alas, much like the eternal debate over mainstream music, movies are a function of stark economics and financial viability. Ultimately, what gets green-lighted is a reflection of the public’s willingness to pay. While Tyler Perry’s movies have received more than their fair share of criticism, black audiences clearly respond to his brand of (urban) humor. Regardless of Hollywood’s oft exaggerated insistence on creativity and its art house pretensions, movie making is a business. As such, industry participants expect to receive a sizable return on their investment in a film. Given how expensive movies are to make nowadays, that’s not an unreasonable expectation.
Advocates for black film will likely fault the Academy for their perceived snub of black artists. Truthfully, however, the Oscars are notorious for a clubby, culturally highbrow worldview that bestows its imprimatur on unknown vanity pieces (The Hurt Locker, anyone?). More often than not, they tend to shun movies, black or white, that hew to mainstream tastes.
All hope, however, is not lost: film festivals such as Urbanworld are breeding grounds for small-budget yet quality black movies. This year’s omission of black actors should be a wake-up call to moviegoers: start patronizing better movies, and Hollywood will be forced to take notice.