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What the Hell Happened: Oscars So Black

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On January 24, the Academy announced the Oscar nominations for the 89th Academy Awards. There were a few surprises: “La La Land” surpassed expectations with a whopping 14 nominations to tie for the most nominated movie in Oscar history; Meryl Streep received her 20th nomination for her lead in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” breaking her own record; “Suicide Squad,” one of the biggest disappointments of the year, was nominated. The biggest surprise, however, was when the Academy broke its heavily criticized two-year streak of not nominating any people of color in any of the acting categories.

This has been a great year for film, specifically for the black community. Six black actors were nominated: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis for “Fences,” Ruth Negga for “Loving,” Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight,” Naomie Harris for “Moonlight,” and Octavia Spencer for “Hidden Figures.” “Moonlight” is the story of a young boy growing up, finding himself, and grappling with his sexuality. “Hidden Figures” is an inspiring history lesson on the critical role black women played in the Space Race. Masterly documentaries “13th,” “O.J.: Made in America,”and “I Am Not Your Negro” are exposés on black life.

This year’s nominations could instigate a permanent movement toward more inclusivity and diversity, a shift TV has pioneered. “Atlanta”, “Orange is the New Black”, and “Jane the Virgin” are among some of the countless TV shows that feature and tell the stories of people of color. Hollywood seems to be following television’s lead. The crucial difference between the two, however, is that a TV show can last years, whereas the film industry has to consistently greenlight a large variety of films featuring actors of color, something it hasn’t always done in the past and may not do in the future. Now more than ever, pushing the industry in the right direction requires not only people in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well, as directors, writers, and cinematographers.

Unfortunately, this year could be a one-off, indulgent attempt on the Academy’s part to avoid the intense backlash it received over the last two years. Alternatively, the Academy may have recognized so many black actors and films in an effort to overshadow the lack of non-black nominees of color, with the exception of Dev Patel for “Lion,” or the lack of female directors and cinematographers. It may even be an attempt to distract us from the controversial nominations of Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson, the former of whom has been accused of sexual assault, and the latter of whom has made racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic comments. In the aftermath of a year that has seen white men rewarded in spite of shameful behavior, this would come as no surprise.

While some of the Oscars’ choices have been dubious—both in terms of artists it nominates and nominees that win—there is no denying that recognition from the Academy automatically both validates and publicizes nominees. Recognition invariably pushes audiences to go see the nominated movies, which means encouraging people to see a few more movies with people of color this year than they would otherwise. In an industry in which money and critical acclaim are the chief sources of opportunities for artists, this could propel a new generation of actors, directors, and writers of color into the limelight.

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Only time will tell if this becomes a short-lived trend or if it is a genuine effort the Academy is making to be more inclusive. And while this is a step in the right direction, it is ultimately only a balm to the bigger issues at hand. Extreme backlash, which didn’t even work to diversify last year’s nominations, shouldn’t be what forces Hollywood to recognize works of art by people of color. Nor should the film industry be praised when it does. While the industry is far from getting to where it needs to be, it will finally cross the finish line once diversity, albeit more and more recognized, becomes something that is regularly delivered, and not thrown in as an apology for its past.

—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at mila.gauvin@thecrimson.com

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