Seed of the Glittering Republic

Hollywood Souvernier Shops
Hollywood Souvernier Shops

Challenging exclusion in the movie industry.

If most of the people you interact with look and talk and believe the same as you, you risk being blind to the talents of those who do not. If you are a gay white man, for example, and have not suffered professionally because of your color or gender, you might still deny being privileged.

Take the controversy over this year's Oscar nominations in the acting and directing categories being all white, despite several acclaimed films and performances by African Americans. Leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were mortified. Last year's hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was revived, and some called for an Oscars boycott. Oscars host Chris Rock has resisted calls to quit. Meanwhile, acting nominee Charlotte Rampling and two-time winner Michael Caine spoke as if their own success were based purely on merit and the protesters were simply not good enough. Objections were raised to racial quotas, despite no one having demanded quotas.

2015's most successful films by black directors are Straight Outta Compton and Creed, which grossed $161 million and $108 million respectively in the American market, and received critical acclaim for their compelling storytelling and performances. It is easy to dismiss criticism of award nominations as subjective, but that begs the question of why the voting membership in the Academy skews so heavily to older white males, and why so few jobs in the industry go to people of color.

Compton was nominated only for its white screenwriters, and Creed only for supporting actor Sylvester Stallone. It is hard to miss the quality of the directors and stars of these films unless you view them through a prism of disdain. Director Ryan Coogler and Actor Michael B. Jordan of Creed have delivered consummate, compelling work in this as in their first feature film, 2013's Fruitvale Station. I lack the space to convey their excellence and the promise they hold for future movies. Others overlooked include Compton director F. Gary Gray and actors Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Will Smith (Concussion), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), and Tessa Thompson (Creed).

Getting greenlighted may be more important than winning awards, but the old "Twice as Good" rule burdens black filmmakers too. Awards help artists gain attention and support for their future projects. Without mainstream funding, the vital voice of a Ryan Coogler would be limited to independent, low-budget films. Considering the millions that pour into the industry from filmgoers of color, the professional barriers make no sense.

Another of my favorite 2015 movies is Todd Haynes's Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, which portrays a forbidden 1950s lesbian love affair without relegating the protagonists to the ranks of the damaged and doomed. It glows despite Haynes being denied a directing nomination. Lily Tomlin's performance in Grandma was also snubbed, as were Mya Taylor's in Tangerine and Ian McKellen's in Mr. Holmes.

James Baldwin, in a 1965 Cambridge University debate with William F. Buckley, spoke of the disillusionment suffered by children of color born in America's "glittering republic":

It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.

Baldwin's incisive, impassioned testimony, which long ago stirred the writer in me, brings to mind struggles that are passed down generations. My greatest satisfaction as an activist lies in the changed expectations of today's children, made possible by countless thousands of us who came before them. The expectation that you can grow up to marry and have your family valued, regardless of whom you love, is powerful beyond measure.

To a child of color stirred by the art and the craft of moviemaking: surprise yourself with storytelling that is not circumscribed by others. Dare to bend the arc of the moral universe by the light of your own spirit. Enrich our vocabulary. Demand to be seen. Your communities, born and chosen, are your stakeholders. We need you more than we know.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.