I Ain’t Sorry: After 88 Years of Oscar Whiteness, Black People Need Not Thank the Academy
On the importance of black indifference for this year's OscarsMovies Features Oscars
On February 22, Jay Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Reasonable Doubt was released 20 years ago. Hard Knock Life Volume 2, almost 19 years ago, with works of genius like The Blueprint and American Gangster following shortly thereafter. Now Jay Z ’s incomparable lyrical abilities are being acknowledged and honored. But by whom?
Following the announcement of this history-making decision, Jay Z took to Twitter to declare the following:
“By the way, this is a win for US. I remember when rap was said to be a fad. We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history.”
What I’m wondering, as the Oscars approach, and with the recent Grammys still fresh on my mind, is whether or not delayed white acknowledgement is always a win for “US” (which is how it’s always presented), or actually something more complicated, and perhaps more sinister. Is it like one of those backhanded compliments you know that you should not accept? Has Jay Z been, in a way, declared a good songwriter, in spite of the fact that he’s also a rapper? Because he’s the first rapper to receive this honor (which means he made it in before the likes of Rakim, KRS-One, Biggie, Nas, Tupac, Lauryn Hill, etc.), is he necessarily presented as the exception to the clear rule set by the voters—that rappers aren’t really songwriters? That it takes an iconic rapper who’s done what few in the entire music industry have (“you have to be twice as good…”) to be deemed worthy of certain accolades?
“Systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves.”—13th
It feels odd to have to write this piece, when the history lessons of Ava DuVernay’s 13th already told us exactly how to think about this year’s “progress” in Oscar “diversity,” or inclusivity. And if you’re open to the occasional metaphor, so did two of the biggest songs from 2016: Beyoncé’s “Sorry” and Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” which already told us how to feel when those who fail to live up to your expectations, or those who have proved to be unworthy, attempt to get our attention. I’ll explain all of this in more detail momentarily, though those of you well-versed in all three works already have a sense of where I’m going … may already be thinking about how all three pieces made you feel—angry, intelligent, annoyed, confident: and perhaps best of all, very, very black.
Now you want to say you’re sorry
Now you want to call me crying
Now you gotta see me wilding
Now I’m the one that’s lying
And I don’t feel bad about it
It’s exactly what you get
Stop interrupting my grinding
(You interrupting my grinding)
I ain’t thinking ‘bout you
Sorry, I ain’t sorry…—“Sorry”
Dear Black People,
When someone, or some Academy, has done you wrong, and eventually apologizes by action or speech and expresses deep sadness over such wrongdoing, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary for your own well-being and sense of self-respect, to completely ignore them, celebrate your life without them, and continue working towards the personal goals you’ve set for yourself. In other words, black people have every right to keep grinding, whilst not thinking about the Oscars and their advancements in the acknowledgement of non-white excellence. And for that, we have nothing to apologize for.
I’ll admit I felt it, too. When I saw the list of this year’s Academy Award nominees, for a second, I almost wanted to thank and applaud the Academy. Moonlight up for eight awards, including Best Picture. Three out of five nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category, black women. Octavia. Viola. Naomie. Ava DuVernay and Raoul Peck nominated respectively for 13th and I Am Not Your Negro. I felt sick with pride and joy. I felt like I was listening to Rihanna’s Anti for the first time, like seeing Lemonade all over again, like watching black people, not as slaves but as superheroes, in Underground Season One. I felt good. Finally, finally. Black excellence rewarded, acknowledged.
But rewarded and acknowledged by whom, precisely? The whom matters. And the 88-year-long history of the whom matters even more.
I was never great at math, but I’m quite sure that a single year cannot negate or dismantle an 88-year average. Last year, in an attempt to respond to #OscarsSoWhite (a movement started by writer and former lawyer April Reign), the Academy invited a record number of new members: 683, with 41 percent being people of color. Here are the results of such a bold move:
“The new invitees are heavily weighted to favor women (46 percent) and people of color (41 percent). If all elect to join, it will begin to shift the demographic makeup of the Academy, which has been criticized in the past for being too old, too male and too white. According to the Academy, its membership was 75 percent male before this year’s new members were recruited, and could move to 73 percent male once they join. Similarly, the Academy was 92 percent white before the latest list and could become 89 percent white in its wake.”
The Academy can now declare—after a steep plunge from 92 percent white to 89 percent white—that it has diversified. God help us if this is progress we should be jumping out of our seats over. These numbers prove that it will likely take another 80 years of record-breaking invitations to people of color before the Academy can even think about claiming to be #NotSoWhite anymore. The same is true for the record-breaking number of black nominees this year. One thrilling year where the first black female editor is nominated, six black actors are nominated, and Barry Jenkins is the first black man to be nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture is not nearly enough. Still, TIME has a lovely breakdown of the seemingly inclusive nominations for you, so you’ll know that racism is no more at the Academy.
Many other publications are celebrating this year’s win for diversity as well. From Variety: “Record Six Black Actors Nominated, Diversity Improves After Controversy.” The LA Times wonders, Are the Oscars still #SoWhite? Deadline wants you to believe that this year’s Oscar Nominations End Diversity Drought With New Honorees. And CNN has a new hashtag for us to use now: #OscarsLessWhite? Diversity comes to Academy Awards.
These headlines are offensive, misleading and ridiculous.
Again, it’s been one year. Without being dramatic, I will go so far as to declare that this kind of rhetoric is precisely how Trump won. We get one black President and people everywhere start deciding that America is post-racial, that racism is mostly a thing of the past! We can all relax now, and elect a woman because, yeah America! This is what happens when we are so desperate to ignore a nation’s long history, when we’re so hungry to see symbols of (uncomplicated) progress everywhere we look.
“Just 14 black actors have won the film industry’s pinnacle prize.
The only African-American director to have taken home an Oscar for a feature-length film is TJ Martin, who won in 2012 with Undefeated, a documentary exploring the struggles of a high-school football team.
In 2015 and 2016, no black actors or filmmakers were nominated. — Al Jazeera
In other words, it’s too early to relax. It is almost always too early to relax.
The creator of #OscarsSoWhite spoke to Al Jazeera, and echoed these sentiments, insisting that—in spite of what you’re being told by nearly every other media outlet—the Oscars remain quite white and lacking in actual diversity: “One year cannot make up for nearly 90 years of a lack of representation… Saying that would be a disservice to all of those who have come before us.” Reign went on to say that, while the 2017 Oscars are “more black,” that doesn’t automatically mean that the Oscars are excelling at diversity.
“Where are the Latino and Latina nominees, where are the Asian-American and Pacific Islander nominees? There’s still a lot more work to be done, and one year with a few nominations doesn’t change anything really.”
I can hear the masses of white people (and many black people, too) groaning right now. “Really? Pacific Islanders too?” People do not want to be told that there is more work to do. They want to celebrate how far they’ve come, pat themselves on the back and settle in to watch La La Land (ahem) make history at the Oscars.
But some of us can’t celebrate just yet. Some of us actually watched Ava DuVernay’s 13th and paid attention to her critique of a system that isn’t broken at all, because it works just as it was designed to work. So it needs to be said: if you saw 13th, and also got excited when you saw the list of Oscar nominees, and then did not take a moment to question that excitement and wonder whether or not the Oscars—ever a reflection of various systems of oppression—were not simply evolving in such a way, as to veil Hollywood’s true lack of progress, you did not actually see 13th. Or, as I said was the case with Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, you saw the film, but did not witness it as you might have.
But baby, don’t get it twisted
You was just another nigga on the hit list
Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch
Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?
Fuck ya white horse and a carriage
Bet you never could imagine
Never told you you could have it
Yooou Neeeeeeeeeeeded Me. —“Needed Me”
It’s nice to be in your company, but don’t assume that being in your company is a priority. You have some issues, and nominating some incredible black films is not enough to solve them. Don’t you know that black people are amazing, and have the capacity to give no fucks? We don’t need those things that are symbols of success and happiness [horses, carriages, Oscars]. And we never told you that we—that our stories—belonged to you, anyway. Actually, you needed us.
Everyone who is praising DuVernay’s documentary as one of the most important movies of the year cannot, in good conscience, sit back and thank the Academy for a job well done in the move towards a less white Oscars. What struck people about DuVernay’s work was the bold and unapologetic framing of this statement: slavery was never abolished; it was amended. But the quote that I will likely tattoo on my body someday (and the bodies of my sons, with their permission of course) is from Glenn Martin, who declares that “systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves.” So the other dominant message of 13th is simple: don’t be fooled. Don’t be fooled by rhetoric, and language, and amendments, and headlines and conversations and even the occasional actions, that point to how much progress is occurring for black people in America. What is often being called “progress” is a veil. Even now, as mass incarceration is being interrogated, new technologies for surveilling black people and keeping them under extended house arrest are being developed. All this, in the name of “progress.” DuVernay tells us that mass incarceration will be amended, but not abolished, which means those of us who want true progress will have to hold back on celebrating such amendments. Similarly, the whiteness of the Oscars is being slowly amended. All of my people should know by now that it is too soon to thank the Academy for such amendments. Perhaps more importantly, all of my people should know that if we never thank the Academy for acknowledging the excellence of our artists, that’s okay too.
So what does all this mean in the face of the reality that the Oscars are this Sunday, and black women and men who watch will be losing their minds collectively on Twitter if Ava DuVernay becomes the first black woman to win for Best Documentary, or if Naomie Harris (or Viola Davis, or Octavia Spencer) wins Best Supporting Actress, or if Moonlight wins Best Picture? I know they will cheer, and I want them to cheer. I probably will, too.
I also know that the winners will have to take that stage and thank the Academy. They will be grateful, and even though many of them will know that such accolades are overdue for our community (as Barry Jenkins has already pointed out), they will feel honored. This is their work. And as much as I agree that the Oscars are much like the Grammys in that they continue to prove their irrelevance over the years, we have not yet dismantled the signification of these awards, and the impact they have on artists who receive them. Sure, I want black nominees to win, so that they will go on to get more work. And I want that to happen because I believe that those who get enough work will eventually be able to become the heads of their own studios, where more untold stories will find space and funding. The thought of a future of more films by us and for us is infinitely more exciting to me than the Academy being now, only, 89 percent white. The fact that a very white Academy and a very white Hollywood will, still, determine (in some way or another) the telling of such stories is a problem I’m not even sure how to address right now.
But I do know that I do not thank the Academy, and I won’t for at least another 88 years. I will thank Viola, for continuing to follow her dream of being an actor, after being sent endless scripts where she was asked to read for the role of an addict. I will also thank her for bringing something so human and true when she accepted the role of an addict in Antwone Fisher. I will thank Naomie Harris for doing the same with this year’s Moonlight. I will thank Taraji for not allowing the Emmys to play her off during her speech last year, and hope that she’ll be able to do the same at an Oscars, in the near future. I’ll thank Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for making a film about their mothers, and my mother, about Miami and all the Littles, Chirons, Blacks, Kevins, Juans and Teresas who populate this world and make it beautiful and heartbreaking. I’ll thank Denzel for introducing a whole new generation to August Wilson, and for not stopping with Fences.
And I’ll thank all the black actors and filmmakers who were never nominated or recognized by the Oscars. I’ll thank Spike Lee for making the Oscar-losing Do The Right Thing. I’ll thank the great Gina Prince Bythewood, who most Academy voters have probably never heard of. I’ll thank Julie Dash for Daughters of the Dust; Ava DuVernay, who may be be nominated this year, but who made her first film with her own money because no major studio would have funded a movie about a grieving black woman and the legacy of her lost loved one. I’ll thank Tina Mabry and Dee Rees for making the kinds of powerful movies that would have surely gotten Oscar buzz, had they only been about dysfunctional white families. I’ll thank Oprah Winfrey, and Tyler Perry, and John Legend, and Jay Z and Will Smith and Ava DuVernay (again) for putting their own dollars into the kinds of projects that should have been getting made over these past 88 years, but are only now finding funding through their production and distribution companies. I’ll thank Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the very first all-black movie production company (started in 1916 by the Johnson brothers) and Oscar Micheaux a.k.a. the “czar of Black Hollywood.” (I guess we’ll get their biopics after Hollywood is finished celebrating white women who created mops and such.)
I’ll thank Rihanna and Beyoncé for making the two albums that, I promise you, soundtracked over 2.3 million creative endeavors by black people last year. I’ll thank Beyoncé and her mother for “responding” to the Lemonade snub in the only way that made sense: middle fingers up.
I’ll thank writer and activist Hari Ziyad, who wrote a single Facebook post on white America’s obsession with receiving some sort of thanks for doing the bare minimum (i.e., for seeing films starring black people, and acknowledging their excellence because … shhhh, don’t tell anyone … but this isn’t the first year black directors made great films about black experiences, in spite of what many white film critics seems to think), and the importance of black people spending less time thanking white America, and spending more time championing other black artists, and championing themselves.
“Black people, you don’t have to follow their lead. You don’t have to be grateful for anything white people do regarding your Blackness, either. You don’t have to be grateful for their money. Their apologies. Their acknowledgments. Their praise. You deserve all of it, and far, far more. If you are not willing to contort your mind, body, and spirit to settle for anything less, you are not wrong, and don’t let those platforms fool you: you are not alone.”
I’ll spend the next 88 years thanking black artists everywhere for creating excellence that will often go ignored (until a white person in a position of power champions it), before I thank the Academy for acknowledging black excellence. I’ll thank the people behind the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report, who can tell you in far more detail just how white Hollywood still is, especially behind the camera.
If anyone shares this piece and dare reduce it to proof that black people are never satisfied—that even in the year of our presumed Lord and savior, Moonlight, black people are still mad about something—let it be known that they did not read this piece. Because if they had, they’d know that I gave the precise specifications at which I’ll be satisfied with the Oscars. To repeat: 88 more years of black nominees comparable to the number of black nominees in 2017. 88 more years of 40 percent or more of the incoming Academy voters being black and other non-white people of color. At such a point I hereby promise to thank the Academy (from my grave, presumably), and will proceed to haunt the world with my thoughts on the severe lack of Native American Oscar nominees.
In the meantime, if the Oscars and Hollywood (and their defenders) are still looking for a “thank you” after all these years, and after all that black artists have endured, they better call Becky (or Meryl?) with the good hair.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.