By W. Gabriel Selassie
This year’s nominations for Best Picture of the Year places the Academy voting members in an unenviable position of casting ballots in what is arguably its most important voting year since it started awarding the Best Picture in 1927/28. The nominated films are Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Black Panther, Green Book, Roma, A Star is Born and Vice. What makes this year so important is that four of the films, Black Panther, BlaKKKlansman, GreenBook, and Roma have people of color at the center of their narratives.
Never have we seen so many movies with minorities, either in front or behind the camera. in consideration for the Academy’s most important category. Nominated for Best Director are Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuarón.
Hollywood has acknowledged it has a diversity problem both in its hiring but also in its failure to create the conditions whereby great films are in the position to be nominated. Over the past eighteen years, only three films with people of color at the center of their films have won the Best Picture category: 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, 2017’s Moonlight, 2014’s Twelve Years a Slave. This year Oscars nominations for best picture represents, if nothing more, the Academy members’ willingness to move toward a wider variety of film genres, to ensure that have themes related to people of color get full consideration.
What I like about this year’s minority-themed films is that each represents a diversity of subject matter. Black Panther positively reaffirms Black America’s embrace of Africa, albeit fanciful. The BlacKKKlansman is a revenge movie that rightly portrays David Duke correctly as an unwitting trope of Black Power. GreenBook’s flawed theme of a shared brotherhood can exist between two men from different communities in America. Roma challenges us to think about the humanity of people that keep our homes and our children.
The most interesting nominated film this year is actually the “box-office blockbuster,” the super-hero themed film Black Panther. The Academy has on occasion. when presented with typical Hollywood action blockbuster type films, awarded them Best Picture, as with Gladiator, Braveheart, and Unforgiven. However, Black Panther as “super-hero” film is poised to make a different king history if it wins. Never before has the Academy embraced this type of film, unless you are counting Birdman, whose plot runs away from its comic-book roots: super-hero devotees don’t consider it a genuinely super-hero movie. So Black Panther could be the first true super-hero action movie to win this category. An Oscar for Black Panther could possibly widen the number of films gaining serious consideration in years to come, and thus more minority themes as well.
Something else to consider is that typically the Academy has always been keen, when they do award the top prize to Black films, to embrace narratives of pain, e.g. 12 Years a Slave and even Moonlight. What made Black Panther resonate so powerfully both in and outside of the Black community is its positive embrace of the mythology of an Africa Redeemed. Africa sleeps, but in our private and public dreams Africa is ready to call its people home to a better future. It is the kind of film that doesn’t dwell on a Black community in pain but in celebration of culture, if only a culture we can dream. Its genre as an action superhero film isn’t the kind of film Academy likes to place in consideration for the top honor, but this is precisely why the Academy can turn in a new direction by doing what is not so obvious.
Black Panther, BlaKKKlansman, GreenBook, and Roma (Netflix’s feature whose central figure is a Mexican servant of indigenous ancestry) should give Hollywood pause to remind itself that even though it has a troubled history of inclusion and diversity, it can reward movies and filmmakers that portray themes that reflect a more diverse world. And, in the case of Black Panther, that such films can generate substantial box office revenue in the process.
What matters most is pushing Hollywood down a road toward green-lighting a greater diversity of themes no matter where they come. I believe the Academy will cross a major bridge toward this goal if Black Panther wins the best picture. I sense that Roma is the only other serious contender, and its haunting portrayal of the struggles of an indigenous woman working in the eye of the storm of an upper-class family is also well deserving. Either way I am hopefully optimistic. For me, I am hoping for a Black Panther win precisely because it’s about a film that doesn’t dwell in victimhood but asserts “Black Self Help” and African Identity beyond typical movies with African themes of White hunters on safari, mad African leaders or genocides. On Oscar night 2019 we’ll see if members of the Academy take steps toward walking or running in a new direction.
Dr. W. Gabriel Selassie I is the Ralph Bunche Associate Professor of History and Religion at the Los Angeles City College.