Every year for as long as I can recall, watching the Academy Awards is a tradition. I have been a film buff since I discovered my father’s 007 library at the ripe old age of 3. It was around the same age I worked out how to pop a VHS tape into the VCR, press play and pass time. I was an only child, still am, and often had to create my own entertainment. I recreated those Bond movies diligently (don’t ask), every available piece of furniture or doll, cast in one part or the other. I was always Bond. Never the Bond girl.
My child like innocence never allowed me to think for one minute that girls could not call the shots. And when I re-enacted my flicks for my dad, he never once suggested that maybe I was more Pussy Galore. But his hobby of watching and discussing films, had morphed into mine. We watched the awards and clapped when someone won, I made tissue paper version of the outfits, my mum hid her make up. We played spot the black person and unlike the Bond films, they did not die before the end. When I moved into a home of my own, I continued the tradition.
At university, it was a serious affair. Oscar viewing parties were officially a thing. Strictly black tie, the Sky subscription strategically upgraded to cover that one important month. But as I grew older, it became more political. Evolved into a hashtag and then a head count of black and white. We still play spot the black person but this time, it means something deeper. I have observed friends and family who do not go to the cinema at all, for the past three years, waiting anxiously for the Oscar nominations list. Ready to protest the inclusion of ‘white films’ and denounce the exclusion of ‘black films.’
Yes, films now have a complexion but do not ask how they qualify to be white or black. Even the proponents of the theory do not know. But safe to say, if most of the cast is black, then the film is and vice versa. Unless of course the key crew is black but cast white actors in which case, the film becomes confusing. White creators are the only ones allowed the flexibility to work with anyone, anywhere. Ask about the merit of one film over the other as they tweet their protests, they rarely knew because they had seen none. But the hashtag #oscarssowhite was trending and they are trendy.
This year, the nominees have been announced. Countless articles and think pieces analysed the list on a black versus white head count focusing largely on actors, writers and directors. A few hours later, someone worked out that diversity and jobs in cinema went beyond actors on screen and directors. In the process, they even noticed that the cinematographer on the ‘white film’ Arrival was the genius, Bradford Young who is black. Awkward watching the ’black blogs’ quickly change sides from rooting for Moonlight, the film with the black writer, black director and a cast full of black people, in the Cinematography category coz you know, the Cinematographer was a white guy and Bradford was a 'brother.'
Articles were quickly updated to labeling Bradford as the first black nominee in the category until some bright spark worked out that someone with the name Remi Adefarasin must have been black and was nominated in 1998 for Elizabeth. A few hours later some even noticed that there was a black female in the editing category. Then of course there were some unhappy folk. The not so white was not so white enough.
Yes, Oscars were black[ish] but not diverse. No many female centric stories some female blogs cried. I think Hidden Fences has a lot of women. Black women, but still women. Where are the Indians? Dunno Dev Patel and Lion? Where is the LGBTQ? Moonlight check! And the people from the Pacific Islands? Ah, now that you mentioned, Tanna is up for best foreign language film. Tanna remains largely missed out on ‘black blogs’ the same way Timbuktu was nominated but Africans joined Afro Americans in claiming zero representation in 2015. Timbuktu was from Mauritania, the African continent but the director was not dark skinned and that made a lot of difference.
Goes to say I was the only one who found it ironic when Innaritu Gonzalez, the Mexican, who directed The Revenant won best director and Emmanuel Lubezski another Mexican won for Best Cinematography in the year of one of the loudest #oscarssowhite protest. Both are Mexicans, from the same Mexico, Trump wants to keep apart with a wall because they are not so white. But at least one article this year was protesting on behalf of Latinos. What can I say? Last year, was yours?
Did Casey Affleck make it whilst Nate Parker did not because of #whiteprivilege when both had sexual assault charges in their history? Or was his performance in Manchester By The Sea finer than most including Nate in Birth Of A Nation. Don't know, but I know that Roman Polanski and his publicist chose the best day to announce he was stepping down from presiding over The Cesars jury. Female groups had protested his appointment due to those sexual assault charges that refuse to follow his lead and go into exile. The Cesars to France is what Bafta's are to the Brits, Oscars to the Americans, Kalasha to the Kenyans and AFRIFF or AMVCA if you are in Nigeria's Nollywood. No one was going to be talking about Polanski when #oscarssowhite was typed out, waiting to hit send based on the nominee list.
Jokes aside, diversity in voices in cinema is a thing. Entertainment is subjective and film is a business. So, it often boils down to stuff that those who commission like and know will work. If the financiers who fund films, the producers who work tirelessly to get them made and the sales agents, distributors and curators who decide what gets seen are not a diverse bunch, the films we will continue to see, will represent their taste and proven trends. Bond. But not with Idris Elba. Personally. I prefer Bond to be Idris free but you catch my drift.
And as the sun set on the 24th of January 2017, much praise was given to the #oscarssowhite hashtag for the diversity of the 2017 nominees list. This was a triumph for ‘Tweetprotests’ allegedly. Little or no attention paid to the fact that in 2016, there was simply an ample number of ‘black films’ made that were brilliant, that met the eligibility rules. Because if a diverse pool of films get made, from a business run by executives with diverse tastes, diverse stories will be told from Brooklyn to Vanuatu to cater for very diverse audiences globally.
Contextualizing their acclaim when they do get the opportunity to create great films and reach a wide audience, as the work of a hashtag, invalidates the work of these talented craftsmen and women, reducing their brilliance to tokenism, when they pay their dues to the craft of cinema, year in, year out, whether a hashtag is trending or not.
Victoria Thomas is a Writer and Producer at The Polkadot Factory currently participating in Filmonics and The Producer Accelerator Lab at the Glasgow Film Festival. She is currently in post-production with the feature documentary, Born In New York, Raised In Paris which chronicles the role of Hip Hop in racial expression, and unveils the complexities of race and identity of Africans born and raised in the diaspora. [thepolkadotfactory.com].