Opinion

The good white folks of the Academy

How Oscar-nominated films misrepresent African-American history

January 15, 2014 12:30PM ET
A scene from "12 Years a Slave." From left: Lupita Nyongo, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

The Academy Awards have made progress in terms of racial representation. This year a film about slavery is the clear front-runner in many of the major categories, and if “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” wins best picture, it would be the first time a movie by a nonwhite director takes the prize. It’s also possible that Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) could join Steve McQueen (“12 Years”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) to make best director a majority-minority category for the first time ever.

It’s certainly a relief to see Oscar-nominated films about black experience actually written and directed by black people (unlike, for example, recent Oscar darlings “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side”). But it’s the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize — who will actually walk up to accept the best picture statuette. Unsurprisingly, most of them are still white.

That might be one reason why the representations of black experience that the Academy deems best-picture-worthy remain fundamentally unchallenged. Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in the last 20 years, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists or major characters. In all but four of those films these characters were either extremely poor or criminals. Out of the four remaining, one featured a slave (“Django,” 2012), another an entertainer (“Ray,” 2004), another an athlete (“Jerry Maguire,” 1996). Needless to say, the white characters in these and the other 103 films nominated for best picture held a much wider variety of occupational and socioeconomic positions.

When "The Butler” is nominated this year — as it will surely be when nominations are announced on Thursday — it will buck this trend by featuring a black domestic servant who happens to be middle class [editor's note: the film was not nominated for best picture]. The biopic traces the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of the White House’s black butlers. In its version of 20th-century black struggle, the civil rights bill came about because the movement appealed to the goodness of JFK’s heart (rather than forcing his hand with its power), the Black Panthers were overaggressive youth who got what they deserved, and Obama’s election is the apotheosis of everything the movement was fighting for. “The Butler” won’t win, but it would have had a much better chance last year, when historical-revisionist ideology celebrating the executive branch (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln”) was all the rage.

Based on a true story

A much better film, “12 Years a Slave” focuses on the visceral horrors of American slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, among others, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold in the decades before the Civil War. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same title, it’s a well-crafted and emotionally powerful film, and for many has provided a devastating condemnation of slavery.

And yet it has major shortcomings. The film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony. White characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones: We learn more about the life story of Armsby, a white laborer who appears for two scenes, than we ever do about Patsey, one of the film’s slave protagonists. The slaves are often singing but rarely speak to one another: They remain mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery. Though there is a plethora of white stars, the three famous black actors outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character get token roles, appearing only once or twice. What happens when we recognize the white characters and actors, while the black people remain largely anonymous? Who does this suggest the film is for?

In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.

Executive producer and screenwriter Ridley’s 2006 article “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” in which he glorifies Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Ayn Rand and calls on wealthy black people to separate themselves from “niggers” — i.e., poor black folks who victimize themselves — exemplifies this position on race and storytelling. Ridley writes, “If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?” Of course, the idea that institutionalized racism disappeared with Jim Crow is absurd. But Ridley’s answers to this loaded question imply that now that racism is over, then black folks have no one to blame but themselves and should drop their anger and just forgive white people, for their own good.

A historical aberration

Modern filmmakers who want to accurately convey the evils of slavery could do so through the stories of Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or any of the other thousands of slaves who didn’t look to white saviors to escape their bondage. But you’d never know from watching Hollywood movies that a single slave ever freed herself. “Django Unchained, “Glory,” “Lincoln” — these films all feature the benevolent intervention of white protagonists. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a slave uprising, is as much about the white lawyers arguing the slaves’ case.

A particular narrative about slavery is told over and over: The institution was a historical aberration perpetrated by evil white people, but luckily there were good white people who listened to the black people, and they helped free the slaves, and now it’s all over. A similarly simplistic narrative emerges out of Hollywood’s revision of the civil rights movement: In “The Butler,” the cause was noble, but some black people took it too far and it was ultimately victorious because white presidents listened to the brave moderate blacks and beat the evil white racists. Now racism is over, because, you know, Obama.

Thanks to the Oscars, hundreds of thousands more will see the versions of black history told by “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: A best picture nomination is a huge boon for ticket sales, adding millions to a film’s box office, rental take, and audience. The Academy that chooses who gets that cash is 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over the age of 50. As such, if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry. And that’s precisely why “Fruitvale Station, the movie about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man whose murder by police in Oakland sparked riots, is unlikely to receive a nomination. 

The real problem for 'Fruitvale Station' is that it's a film about racism without a happy ending

“Fruitvale Station” won the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury award, the same award that “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film about black experience in America, won in 2012. Notorious Oscar campaigner the Weinstein Co. distributed “Fruitvale Station,” and it opened in more than 1,000 theaters. It was met with universal critical acclaim and made $16 million at the box office, more than presumptive nominees “Nebraska” or “August: Osage County.” The point being, this is no tiny indie or critical cause celebre: “Fruitvale Station” has a solid resume for a best picture nominee. It’s even based on a true story! Commentators have claimed it’s not “stylistically innovative” enough, but it’s stylistically consistent with the washed-out steadycam of guaranteed nominee “Captain Phillips,” and a markedly better movie to boot. “Fruitvale Station” develops real emotional stakes (unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street”), refuses to stereotype its black characters (unlike “The Butler”) and doesn’t rely on precious twee misogyny to make you care about its protagonist (unlike “Her”).

But the Oscars have never been about celebrating the year’s best movie (“Crash, anyone?). The real problem for “Fruitvale Station” is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as “12 Years a Slave” does, and can’t give the contradictions of history a tidy conclusion, as “The Butler” does with Obama’s election. Instead, it connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.

The point is not to berate the Oscars for not nominating “Fruitvale Station,” but rather to see how the Oscars, and the film-critical apparatus surrounding them, dictate what constitutes a “serious” depiction of race. No one really believes the Oscars are a meritocracy, but the awards still end up giving certain movies massive new audiences, deciding which films critics will write about and people will talk about.

If, come March 2, when the envelopes are opened, “12 Years a Slave” gets snubbed — beaten by, say, “American Hustle” — expect a lot of people to start talking about the racism of the Oscars. They’ll be right to. But if “12 Years a Slave” wins, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the Academy’s rich white men for an anti-racist victory.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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