Hey, academy: Where are the (black) women?
In a year where black women were behind the scenes in some of the most critically acclaimed material, no one’s name was called
In the end, Issa Rae had the voice that echoed it all for us.
Early in the wee hours on Monday morning — per usual with Academy Award nominations — both Rae and actor John Cho delivered the nominations of who would be up for awards in Hollywood’s top prizes. Not surprisingly, no female directors were nominated.
And after the names were read — Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho — Rae ad-libbed something that she likely knew she’d have to say during the live telecast.
“Congratulations to those men,” she said, after reading the Oscar nominations for best director.
The shade was so very real.
(But the delight in Rae’s voice after hearing that actor Cynthia Erivo was nominated also didn’t go missed either.)
Here’s Hollywood’s biggest problem: opening the door and inviting us in.
And making us feel like we matter.
Especially in a season where black women in particular, brought to life some of the most captivating films we’ve seen since the history of film. Women such as Melina Matsoukas, Kasi Lemmons, Lena Waithe and Debra Martin Chase should have heard their names called Monday morning. They all worked behind the scenes, directing, producing and writing some of the most compelling films, with projects such as Queen & Slim, and Harriet. With Chinonye Chukwu’s efforts on Clemency, this most certainly could have been an epic year of black women earning approval and, yes, acceptance from what is perhaps the toughest country club to gain entry into.
Matsoukas and Waithe gave us a meditation on black love and what it means to matter in the world. Lemmons and Martin Chase finally brought a Harriet Tubman biopic to the big screen. Chukwu delivered a gripping and unseen take on death row that haunts its viewers long after the final credits roll. And in front of the camera, no one, perhaps, worked harder in 2019 than Lupita Nyong’o, who doubled down on the undeniable truth that we are, in fact, our own worst enemies.
This should have been the year. The 2020 award season should have been the year that we coronated as industry-shifting. This could have been the year that changed so much in Hollywood. Black women had defining voices that were loud and listened to and created emotionally complex characters and deft story lines and screenplays that dove deep.
That was something I certainly was hoping to talk about on a day like today. Those dreams were dashed a few months ago when it became apparent that this industry — for however progressive it may be perceived outwardly with regard to politics — has a long way to go.
Not even a viral hashtag such as #OscarsSoWhite, which was so powerful in ways no one saw coming — people of color and women were extended invites in ways we’d never seen before — could overturn decades of exclusion.
We can also talk about the emptiness of expected diversity — names such as Eddie Murphy for his masterful turn as Rudy Ray Moore in Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name and Nyong’o for her bewitching portrayal of two women in Jordan Peele’s Us were names tossed out early in 2019 as contenders — while celebrating a nominee such as Erivo, who was rightly (and as expected) nominated for her role as Harriett Tubman in Harriet.
But we can complain. And we should. Before Netflix dropped The Irishman, the best film of the year hands down came from newbie writer and director Chukwu. Her film, Clemency, premiered to a packed house at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a well-researched drama that brings humanity to the people charged with carrying out executions and the film is the result of eight years of hard work. It captured the very competitive U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which made Chukwu the first black woman to win the award.
But she never had a chance.
It’s challenging to penetrate the tight-knit world of Hollywood. It’s still a (white) boys club. And otherness isn’t always welcome. Especially if the groundwork isn’t expertly laid for newbies to walk on in.
Certainly, there are other significant victories to pay attention to: Matthew A. Cherry, who was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, was nominated for his beloved animated short, Hair Love. That’s the same category that former NBA star Kobe Bryant won the top prize for in 2017. Animation is an area that has also been lacking in diversity.
So that’s a moment. And it’s worth celebrating.
But the categories that move the needle in the loudest ways are the ones we wait until the tail end of award shows for: actor, actress, director and best picture. And as visible as actors are, the power truly lies with the people working behind the scenes, the visionaries with the creative lenses to conceive, craft, write, produce and direct projects. And nowhere in the 2020 nominations field do we see any trace or indication that women — and black women, specifically — outdid themselves in unimaginable ways this past season.
Because they did.
But we won’t see that. Not this year, anyway.