It is a rare year when I pay any attention to the Oscars, because I generally don’t find watching awards shows entertaining. I am also not usually familiar with most of the nominees or their performances. If there is something special that happens at an awards show that I need to see, I’ll just catch it later when I have a free moment. Additionally, with the Oscars in particular, the films being recognized are not often representational of diverse groups of people. Even worse are the ones that seem to traffic in characters that reinforce stereotypes in such a way that the mainstream viewing audience accepts these characters as authentic. So when we consider where there has been recognition of Black actresses at the Oscars — beginning with Hattie McDaniel for her performance as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” and including others like Mo’nique for “Precious,” Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball,” Octavia Spencer for “The Help” and, most recently, Viola Davis for “Fences,” all films that I have actually seen — I tend to not necessarily look to the Oscars to recognize films that tell the fullness of our stories, the good and the bad. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy going to the theater to see a good film and recently, there have been some great ones: “Birth of a Nation (2016)”, “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Get Out.” I just understand that what is presented to and about me as a Black woman has its limitations.
However, it is important to go and see films, such as the ones I mentioned, right when they are released, because they are often measured by their box office sales, side by side with the depth of the performances. Therefore, I want those who make and/or support films such as these to be encouraged by the capitalist arena in which they are created. In other words, I do my part by actually going to see the film in the theater, plus I enjoy being a part of a greater viewing audience and seeing if people react the same way I do. On some level, it allows us a shared humanity — a connectedness with strangers we might not otherwise experience. Sometimes when the film is especially, great the audience applauds. Curious.
But back to these awards shows, and particularly the Oscars; what I do appreciate is the platform that allows these remarkable women to make impassioned speeches that pay homage to those who have gone before them, as well as their politicization of the moment in which they are recognized. I often wonder what difference it truly makes, especially given the sustained racist U.S. society Black people face on a daily basis, but I appreciate that they use their public voice to speak out given their limited opportunities as elite artists.
In his essay, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), so much of what W.E.B. DuBois expressed concerning the differences between Black and White artists has relevance today and I encourage everyone to read it, because it was unfortunately prophetic. He wrote:
“The apostle of beauty thus becomes the apostle of truth and right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by truth and justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the truth or recognize an ideal of justice. Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent….” or has to be attached to a lily white film that appropriates Black culture in 2017…but, you know, baby steps.
Dr. Terri Jett is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Special Assistant to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusivity at Butler University.