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. (For more see http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/1/the-good-white-folksoftheacademy.html )
* We thank Willie Osterweil and Al Jazeera America editors very much for letting us partially reblog the article.