Black Hollywood makes a big statement at the 2017 Oscars ceremony
Diverse black stories — regardless of how many trophies collected — were the night’s biggest winner
HOLLYWOOD — When the little guys — Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner — from Barry Jenkins’ most excellent Oscar-winning film Moonlight walked the red carpet, they gushed that the career they were most chasing is Denzel Washington’s. By the time 2020 hits, it’s his career they hope to have. An hour or so later, the legendary actor and director (for the best picture-nominated Fences) delivered that bright, familiar smile upon hearing of that aspiration, before he and his wife Pauletta were quickly whisked into The Dolby Theatre. “I hope,” he said, pausing a few beats to laugh, “I can be me in three years.”
Everyone got what he was saying.
This is a moment. Even on the Monday after, all of this is a moment. It’s a moment that two short years ago, we’d no idea we’d see — certainly not this soon, anyway.
This — the 2017 Oscars — was no affirmative action awards show.
Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences and Loving are films that reflect a diversity of blackness and black stories — the kinds of stories that folks talked about around the dinner table or pored over in JET magazine in spite of never — ever — reading about them in fourth-grade American history books. But now? A record six black actors were nominated for Oscars, and four of the five directors nominated in the documentary category were black. And that’s not all.
And even before the first award was handed out on the biggest stage in all of Hollywood — the Super Bowl of award shows, if you will — the moment had somehow become bigger than whomever might collect one. “What Hollywood needs to learn is inclusion. Include the American cultures that have been left out for so long,” said actor Aldis Hodge, a co-star in the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. “This acknowledgement is great. However, the proof in the pudding is seeing the acknowledgement continue as a normalcy for years to come. This has to continue happening for the next 100 years. That’s when we see real progressive change. One time is great. But it’s not enough.”
Bradford Young, the Howard University alum who is the first African-American cinematographer to be nominated for such an Oscar — for his work on last year’s Arrival, was thrilled of course. He represents a tech side of Hollywood that we don’t spend enough time talking about. But Young, who currently is working on the Han Solo Star Wars spinoff, is already thinking ahead — while acknowledging the past.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” he said before walking into the theater. “You want to be in the moment and you want to celebrate, but it’s hard to celebrate when you know you’re in the middle of a struggle. We haven’t really turned the page. We just have folded the page over slightly … when the night is over, we still gotta go back to the communities that we came from.”
Part of the responsibility involves making sure that underrepresented communities are in fact represented. Black folks are finally becoming highly visible in Hollywood, and with presence comes voice. “My hope is that we don’t even have to say the words ‘diversity,’ or ‘inclusion’ — it means more than black people,” said Ava DuVernay, who was nominated for her Netflix documentary 13th. “There are Latino people that need to be included in this. Asian American people … Native people. When was the last time you saw a film by a Native filmmaker? We need to be inclusive in our industry to all types of voices. That’s when we truly win.”
The night’s feature films that represented black life and that were up to be honored were remarkable, but perhaps the meatier — and equally important race — is what was happening in the non fiction segment. The historic documentary race pitted three stories — and four black directors — against one another.
Ultimately, Ezra Edelman won for the ESPN-produced documentary O.J.: Made In America.
“For me, the idea of having four black directors nominated in the documentary category speaks to the very real talent that exists among black voices who are filmmakers. It’s kind of hard to say what is an arbitrator of anything, [but] I think the fact that you have four very talented filmmakers who are all very experienced with making films … and all these films got recognized in this year — I think it also speaks to how people responded to the films and the stories they’re telling,” Edelman said before the show. “There is a real need and an urgency that only reinforces the need for these diverse voices.”
The voice behind the storytelling is just as essential as the ones on the screen — perhaps, even more so.
“For me specifically, if you look at O.J.’s story, many people have tried — and have done it — to tell a story about O.J. and the trial. I couldn’t tell you how many white voices were trying to do that, versus voices of color … my worldview and what my experience is was very fundamental to how I chose to tell that story,” Edelman said. “And people are saying, ‘I’m understanding events that I didn’t understand at the time.’ That speaks to why it’s necessary that people of color tell these stories the way they’re doing it. And there are thousands more who are talented. I hope that’s the message that gets sent. There are four of us nominated, but there are thousands more out there.”
And the same goes for black stories. There are many that need to be told. And if this moment maintains its momentum, it’ll happen. “I just hope we get to the point where we stop asking people to let us tell our stories. We need to tell our stories by any means necessary,” Young said. “I’m just hoping that we can help nurture that. If not, why are we doing this?”