A record six black actors are nominated at the Academy Awards, for roles ranging from a NASA mathematician to a drug dealer.

Black Actors Could Make History at This Year’s Oscars, but the Roles Matter More Than the Wins

Black Actors Could Make History at This Year’s Oscars, but the Roles Matter More Than the Wins

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 22 2017 8:03 AM

Black Actors Could Make History at This Year’s Oscars, but the Roles Matter More Than the Wins

Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer leads the charge.

20th Century Fox

After two years of #OscarSoWhite, this year we have three films with predominantly black casts nominated for Best Picture, four films with black directors nominated for Best Documentary, and a record six black acting nominees. But what those statistics don’t capture is the range and the diversity of roles that the academy singled out for recognition.

In Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson’s play set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly black Hill District in the 1950s, Viola Davis plays Rose Lee Maxson, the long-suffering wife of Troy Maxson (Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington). Davis and Washington bring understated warmth to roles that could have been played stereotypically. There are no extended shouting matches or fists put through walls—they allow Rose and Troy to be flawed human beings.

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In Loving, Ruth Negga embodies Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the court case that struck down prohibitions against interracial marriage, as a woman weary of miscegenation laws, yet her quiet dedication to being the best wife she can be is her own form of civil disobedience. Naomie Harris plays Paula, the emotionally abusive mother of Moonlight’s Chiron—a role that adheres to stereotypes about single black women in urban settings, but there is no denying Harris’ effectiveness in showing the depths of emotion just beneath her cold surface.

These are heartening developments, but the most exciting is Octavia Spencer’s nomination for playing Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures, a no-nonsense NASA mathematician and supervisor—and, eventually, a self-taught computer programmer—struggling against the overt racism and sexism of 1961. Too often, black women are relegated to the periphery, even in films that are supposed to center their experiences—think of The Help, in which Spencer starred opposite Best Actress nominee Emma Stone. For her to be nominated this year for a role that empowers black women is encouraging.

Mahershala Ali is poised to win Best Supporting Actor for his soft-spoken portrayal of Juan in Moonlight. While he plays the role of a drug dealer, the way he realizes the character shows that tenderness is possible in even the most dire of circumstances. His humanity is centered in his understanding of black masculinity, and his nomination speaks to the fact that the academy is willing to go beyond the types of black roles that have usually been given recognition—slave, dirty cop, asexual housekeeper, hypersexualized single mother—and see characters who speak to the complexity of the black experience in America as worthy of acknowledgement.

It’s fitting that Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, a foundational black American film that showed the political potential of sketch comedy, was released 30 years ago this March. Drawing from Townsend’s experiences of having white film executives coach him on how to “be black” according to their own stereotypes about black behavior, the film’s satirical commercial for “Black Acting School” could have gotten him blacklisted, but it didn’t—it was just too damn funny.

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Hollywood Shuffle was Townsend’s first film, but he has gone on to have a 30-year directorial career making films as diverse as Meteor Man, the first film where I saw a black superhero who was not a sidekick; Carmen: A Hip Hopera, staring a young Beyoncé Knowles; and The Five Heartbeats, co-written with Keenen Ivory Wayans and traditionally watched in many black homes after Thanksgiving dinner. He also influenced a generation of black millennials with his show The Parent ’Hood, which ran from 1995–1999 on the WB.

Speaking to Slate’s Aisha Harris on Represent, Townsend reflected on the impact the film has had across the world: “Films are powerful. Images are powerful. They can travel around the world .… Even though it was my first film, it gave me an education on the power of images. When you look at my career, I’ve tried to stayed on course in my mission to uplift people of color.” That is why this year’s Oscar nominees are, for me, a source of hope in an otherwise bleak time in America.

I teach at a university in Oklahoma, where I come into contact with white students who often have very little interaction with people of color. There have been times when I was asked if I knew where to find weed as I walked across campus late at night. I’ve experienced the occasional microaggression, the clutched purse as I walk into an elevator. There have been white students in my film, race, and philosophy class who have stayed after class and informed me that their expectations about people who are nonwhite have been deeply informed by the films they’ve watched. For some, the only access they’ll have to the complexity of the black experience is by way of the big screen. That’s why movies, like black lives, matter.

The decisions that academy voters make influence the movies that are greenlit, and their votes affect which actors and actresses are chosen for leading parts. If the kinds of roles for which actors of color are nominated are only historical in nature or highlight what is worst about the black community, that may mean that only those roles are offered to people of color—and that in turn implicitly sends a message to viewers that those are the only characters black Americans can successfully embody. The movie industry and its awards-giving bodies need to make room for the complex beauty of those who live in the African diaspora.

This country is at a crossroads. The movement for black lives continues to raise awareness of the racist forces that delimit the actualization of black potentiality, while Trump is in the White House actively rolling back the Obama administration’s years of relative racial progress. There has been a great deal of talk about the need for us to sit down and listen to people on the other side of the aisle. While I am suspicious of the efficacy of those conversations, I do believe that films can help bring people together.

We need to hear stories that highlight the political and cultural forces that divide us. We also need to see that despite these divisions, it is our shared humanity that unites us. I’m not saying that films have the ability to change the world, but I do think that they have the ability to help us see a bit of the world through the eyes of someone we may never meet.

We have come a long way from the days of Hollywood Shuffle. That was before Denzel Washington’s rise to stardom and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Much has changed, but more work needs to be done. Even with the push for inclusion, academy voters are overwhelmingly white and male. In fact, University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph Bunche Center recently released its 2017 “Hollywood Diversity Report: Setting the Record Straight,” which highlights the fact that minorities remain underrepresented on every front. They are outnumbered 3 to 1 as it relates to film leads; 4 to 1 in regard to film directors, and 7 to 1 among film writers. This is an exceptional year, but I temper my enthusiasm because therein lies the problem: It is, indeed, exceptional. These numbers show us that it is not the norm.

I applaud the voters for being more inclusive this year, but I’m not handing out any cookies until I see them consistently recognize people of color for the next 10 years—and even then, I’ll remain skeptical.

Lawrence Ware is a teaching assistant professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies specializing in philosophy of race.