FROM FIRST-TIME NOMINEES Jordan Peele and Mary J. Blige to past winners and perennial contenders Octavia Spencer and Denzel Washington, this year’s Academy Award nominations feature people of color in nearly every major category. And it’s doubtful that we would have reached this historic moment without a single tweet that sparked serious conversations about Hollywood’s lack of diversity: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”
That’s what April Reign, a black writer and former lawyer, posted on Twitter after the 2015 Academy Award nominations recognized only white people in all acting categories. In the constant churn of social media, her tweet could have been lost; instead, it provoked a movement that challenged the film industry to acknowledge actors, writers, and directors of color.
“It’s not about saying who is snubbed and who should have been nominated; it’s about opening the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast, and who tells the story behind the camera,” Reign told the Huffington Post in 2016. “My goal was just to have the conversation and push the dialogue further.”
After another consecutive Academy whitewash, some, like director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith, boycotted the 2016 ceremony. As host, Chris Rock was supposed to serve as the Oscars’ cool black guide through the rancor, but his response was tepid, as if he didn’t want to bite too hard the hand of the industry that feeds him. Plus, he also made three Asian children on stage the butt of jokes that reinforced racial stereotypes.
This was a made-in-Hollywood mess.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, got the message and got busy. She called diversity and inclusion, “a personal thing to me as a woman and a woman of color,” adding, “but it should be personal to everyone.” She pledged to make the Academy’s membership —reported by the Los Angeles Times as 91 percent white and 76 percent male — younger and more diverse.
Last year, Barry Jenkins’s elegiac black gay love story, “Moonlight,” the kind of film that once would have been ignored by Academy voters, won the best picture Oscar.
Of course, the #OscarsSoWhite conversation wasn’t just about who gets a shot at those coveted gold statues. If films made by or starring people of color can’t get financed or publicized, they won’t get noticed during awards season. The movement advocated a creative environment where filmmakers of color have opportunities to tell their stories their way — and not just the long-suffering slave tales Hollywood has long preferred.
This year, “Get Out,” a contemporary and timely horror film about nefarious deeds lurking beneath amiable white liberalism, received four nominations, including best director and best original screenplay for Peele. Blige, the longtime “queen of hip-hop soul,” is nominated for best supporting actress in “Mudbound.” Along with Raphael Saadiq, she is also recognized for cowriting the film’s original song, “Mighty River.” Dee Rees, who directed “Mudbound,” was nominated with Virgil Williams for best adapted screenplay.
Both “Mudbound” and “Get Out” are small passion projects with unconventional storylines. Neither boasts big-name stars designed to draw moviegoers. Both prominently feature African-Americans in lead roles. And not that long ago, both would have had trouble getting made, let alone attracting Academy attention.
When #OscarsSoWhite began, some complained that the movement was sucking the fun out of the Academy Awards. Such whining was as narrow-minded then as those now worried that the #MeToo reckoning is overshadowing the frocks and froth of this awards season. This isn’t about shiny awards. This is an era when no moment of cultural redress should go unseized.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean people of color should be satisfied. If anything, Tuesday’s nominations show they’re just getting started in claiming an overdue and rightful place in Hollywood. Instead of begging for a seat at the table, now they’re flipping it.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.