Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of Oscar nominees of people of color this year, with the threat of boycotts of the Oscar ceremonies by certain prominent actors. It is my belief that such efforts are counterproductive, both because the Oscars are chosen by among the most liberal cultural demographic that can be imagined, and one that has had no problems awarding Oscars in years past to authors like Will Smith (for Ali, for example), or even to Best Original Songs like “It’s Tough To Be A Pimp,” by Three Six Mafia, among many other such examples. Let us remember that even Haile Berry has won an Oscar before. A boycott, and even the threat of the boycott, simply makes people angry that they are being manipulated in an attempt to turn the Oscars into every other aspect of our contemporary culture spoiled by racial quotas and affirmative action. There is a better way. Rather than creating an atmosphere where black actors and actresses are given a quota of one nominee among the major acting categories (best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress), here are some ways where they can achieve far more, with some effort, and while preserving dignity and making sure that any nominations were earned, and not given just to avoid causing a ruckus.
1. Make The Right Films
The Oscars have a very consistent pattern when it comes the sort of roles and the sort of movies that earn nominations. This consistency is a moviemaker’s best friend, because it means that making Oscar bait is not a very complicated task. Historical epics, or films that show resilient women and/or children are usually fairly obvious choices. Does a film show a successful struggle for survival or dignity, the triumph of decency over bigotry or hatred or poverty, with excellent costume design, compelling special effects (if necessary), and gorgeous cinematography? If so, it will likely get a lot of nominations. There are many people who do not like to make films like this. Some people are most comfortable filming within certain genres, or exploring their own creative muse, or in making the sort of films that make a lot of money but that do not please critics. Obviously, those protesting the lack of black nominations for the Oscars are not this kind of person, and so the obvious takeaway is that if one knows the sort of films that receive Oscar nominations and wins, then one needs to go about making that kind of film.
While pondering this issue over, I thought of several ideas for the sort of movie that would win Oscars, assuming they were done with skill across all levels of moviemaking. One of the books that I have on hold at my local library is called “Ruth And The Green Book,” and it is an award winning book set in Jim Crow times about a trip that Ruth and her family make in their own vehicle from Chicago to Alabama, using “The Negro Motorist Green Book” to find hotels and restaurants that were willing to serve what would appear to nearly anyone as ideal customers—an intact family of reasonable means. This is a film that would point out the effect of racism on decent, upstanding people, the search for dignity for people of color, and likely a spunky young woman who would likely win a nod for best actress or best supporting actress. It is precisely the sort of historical film that could both educate and inspire, presenting a historically accurate picture of our own not-particularly-distant past.
Another obvious film idea would be a biopic on the life of Richard Mentor Johnson. Here was a Kentucky politician who won initial fame for receiving the credit for killing Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, and a man who openly acknowledged his children by a black common-law wife who he openly considered a wife, rather than considering her as a mere secret mistress. His fame led him to the vice presidency, but his political career suffered as a result of his seeking to honor his wife and children despite laws against so-called miscegenation. This film could very easily win an award for Best Actress with a performance of Julia Chinn (the wife) as a strong, beautiful woman facing the scorn of a racist world that would accept her as a secret mistress but not as an open wife to a powerful man. Likewise, this film would not face the sort of difficulties that Straight Outta Compton  faced in dividing would-be liberals by its whitewashing of misogynist rappers who were racist against Jews and Asians. This film, rather, would put the division of racism on others, by having its lead actor be a man whose fame came about by one form of racism but whose career was ruined by another form of racism, making the racism a white man’s burden.
A third idea, albeit somewhat more exotic than the previous two, would be to film the triumphant survival of the Ethiopian kingdom in the Battle of Adowa against Italian imperialism. With a sufficiently noble and courageous performance of an actor playing Emperor Menelik II, who sought to divide Europeans against each other to counteract the Italians and stockpiled enough weapons to be able to annihilate the Italian army in battle, leaving few survivors of the attempt and preserving the independence of his nation. This sort of film would strongly appeal to the anti-imperialism mindset of many in Hollywood, and demonstrate just the sort of dignity that would earn an obvious Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with the possibility of a lot of other nominations for technical categories like best original screenplay and best costume design for capturing European and Ethiopian clothing in the late Victorian period. These are three ideas that I was able to come up with fairly quickly that would correspond to the sort of film that wins Oscar nominations and awards, coming from history or award-winning literature. Yet, to my knowledge, none of these films is being made, nor are there films like them that I am aware of in the pipeline. If you want Oscar nominations and awards, you need to make the sort of films that are going to receive that praise.
2. Build The Infrastructure
If one wants to receive Oscar nominations on a regular basis, one needs to have an infrastructure in place to support these efforts consistently rather than merely having a one-off flash in the pan every few years. This infrastructure can be built from the top to the bottom. On the highest level, the best way to ensure that Oscar-worthy films are being made consistently is to have at least one, if not more, prestige studios that are willing to make the highest-quality films with and about people of color. Those who have made money in Hollywood and who want to put their money where their mouth is would be quite welcome to invest in the studio infrastructure to be able to fund films that are made that would win Oscars, on the realm of a few such films a year, at least. Such studios would also be able to invest in films made in other countries that feature people of color in areas like the Caribbean and Africa and Europe and present them to an American audience, and be able to support the quality and quantity of films that would be able to help keep regular film festival-quality material of the kind that receives award nominations and wins and supports the filmmakers of the American and foreign black community.
Additionally, these sorts of efforts would provide the opportunity for the development and support of black filmmakers, producers, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, costume and set designers, and other key technical people. Let us not simply be looking for fame for a few black actors, but rather build the sort of infrastructure that provides among people of color skill in all aspects of film creation, so that such people have the skills to make whatever films that they want to, without having to depend on hired guns or studios that may not be interested in making films about the sort of subjects that would inspire daring filmmakers to make creative films about unfamiliar areas of history or literature that has won awards but perhaps not had the sales that would normally justify film adaptation. When one has the infrastructure to make any films one wants, and the willingness to accept the risk and reap the rewards for those films, then one can lower one’s dependence on the existing risk-adverse studio system that is willing to pour money into Ride Along 2 but not willing to make a beautiful and Oscar-worthy film about a family struggling with racism in what should have been ordinary vehicle travel.
3. Build The Audience
Ultimately, the best way to ensure that Oscar-quality films are made on a regular basis that encourage the development of black actors and filmmakers of all technical disciplines is to make sure that there is an audience for such films. The companies that make films do so to make money, and if one can consistently demonstrate that films are profitable that deal with black concerns, that have compelling performances by black actors and actresses, young and old, and that also win nominations and awards in other categories for technical achievement in writing and filmmaking and music and costume design and everything else that goes into making a film, those films will be regularly made over and over again. Are there good scripts about worthwhile subjects, and skilled people passionate about making those kinds of films on all levels, and are there people who are willing to pay good money to watch those films and help those films to be made in the future? If so, they will be made. The color that studios are most interested in seeing is green. If one wants the golden statuettes on a regular basis, provide the green, provide the audience, and the films will come. Why do companies make sequels and reboots, after all?
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