“People in general cannot bear very much reality.” – James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
It has been 152 years since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in this country…
It has been 53 years since the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion sex, or national origin…
And 52 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act which was designed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.
But, as “13th,” the Academy Award nominated documentary by Ana DuVernay addresses, our country still struggles with the vestiges of institutional racism in all aspects of our lives – from art to politics. Her film, one of five in the documentary category, explores the “exemption clause” to link the modern-day prison labor system to slavery. It’s also clear that without outside pressure and advocacy, films like “13th” would never have been considered for the industry’s highest honors. This year, a record six African-American actors were nominated including veteran award-winner Viola Davis, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in “Fences”. Three films with predominantly Black casts, “Fences,” “Moonlight,” and “Hidden Figures,” were nominated for Best Picture and four of the five entries in the documentary category were created by artists of color. “Moonlight,” a unique coming of age story, won for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali.
Ellen McGirt, who launched raceAhead last year, Fortune Magazine’s daily newsletter on culture and diversity in corporate America explains, “the past two years, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and related online social pressure have forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its leadership and voting base, ruffling the feathers of some longstanding members, many of whom hadn’t made any part of a movie for decades.”
In acknowledging its lack of diversity, Academy leadership welcomed a new class of voting members that better reflects the diversity of the industry and our society. The class of 683 new members is made up of 46 percent women and 41 percent people of color. Prior to that, the membership was 25 percent women and 8 percent people of color. “As a result, new filmmakers, stories, themes, and talent were being acknowledged in a ceremony that had been routinely criticized for rewarding insiders instead of excellence, a liberal Hollywood that turned out not to be so liberal after all,” McGirt explaned.
“We are our history,” James Baldwin notes in the film “I Am Not Your Negro,” one of the other documentaries created by an artist of color. The film, directed by Raoul Peck, featuring the words of Baldwin, narration by Samuel L Jackson, and rarely seen archival material from the civil right era, is based on a 1979 letter written by Baldwin to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of Baldwin’s close friends—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.
Using Baldwin’s original words, Peck provides a critique of racism and an examination of race in America that still rings true 27 years after they were penned. It has been said that “image is everything” and for a people whose image has been maligned since the birth of our nation, the 2017 Academy Awards, even with its flubs and flaws, was a small step in the right direction.
Paulette Brown-Hinds, PhD, Publisher