With the most important night for film less than a week away, racial representation has once again become a topic of this year’s Oscars. Between the hype for Black Panther’s box office success, African-Americans holding one in five acting nominees and Dee Rees’ historic nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, many are wondering whether Black cinema and the Oscars are experiencing historic change. In the past several years the Academy Awards have faced controversy and calls for improvement of racial representation. Since then the Oscars have attempted to make changes in order to diversify the Academy’s membership.
While exciting, it’s still early to say whether any lasting change will follow. Black cinema has often gone through brief periods of celebration only to disappear from the limelight for long periods afterwards. Even when widely celebrated, many have criticized the Oscars for often only recognizing performances that portray people of color in racist tropes. From Hattie McDaniel’s 1940 Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind to Denzel Washington’s 2002 win for his role as a corrupt cop in Training Day, recognition at the Oscars has often been bittersweet.
During the 2017 Academy Awards we became interested in how discourse about Black representation was impacted by the Oscars. Similar to past nominations, Moonlight’s overall success sparked debate about the recognition of Black films. With the 2015-2016 social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite still fresh in everyone’s memory, most welcomed seeing a record breaking number of Black nominees. At the same time, others saw Moonlight as reiterating familiar tropes of damaged black families, drug use, and poverty. As in 2002, commentary shifted to question how well the film represented the community it depicts, and whether any representation was better than none at all.
The Academy has their own idea about what diversity and greater representation mean, and after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign it appears that more Black actors, directors, and writers are being celebrated for their work. Nonetheless, conversations continue about who should star in certain films, what stories should be told, and what those stories mean about the communities they represent. These differences matter, because the Oscars can serve as a platform to reify or challenge the historical stereotypes ascribed to people of color and generate broader conversations about social issues.
Perhaps what has been most exciting about the last two Oscar seasons is that we are seeing a greater diversity of stories being told about Black people. Films such as Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Get Out have demonstrated that stories centering people of color can have broad appeal and commercial success. With the 2018 nominees, the Motion Picture Academy has taken positive steps toward representing people of color and their stories. However, only time will tell whether or not the Oscars will continue it’s push for inclusion and diversity.
Wayne Rivera-Cuadrado is a doctoral student at FSU’s Department of Sociology. His research explores the intersections of culture, gender, and emotions.
Taylor Jackson is a doctoral student at FSU’s Department of Sociology. Her research interests are race, gender, and representation.