In this Highsnobiety op-ed, Tobi Abdul explores Hollywood's race problem and explains how a number of key nominations at this Sunday's Academy Awards reflects how the industry is finally showing signs of progress.

Investing in stories that center people of colour without dwelling on their pain or oppression is a large step towards healing in this political climate that has been especially unkind. It’s important not just to show tokenized images of stereotypical characters, but to present diverse narratives of intelligent individuals with differing stories and experiences.

This year’s Academy Awards prove that, if given the platform, there is a motley of diverse, compelling, and complex stories that are also commercially viable. The increased visibility is reminiscent of a central line in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures: “any upward mobility is mobility for us all.”

Even in historically white categories like cinematography, editing and producing, there is progress across the board. A record-tying seven actors of color, and a record-breaking six black actors, are nominated. Hidden Figures has surpassed La La Land as the highest-grossing film amongst this year’s nominees. Four of five films vying for Best Documentary were made by black filmmakers, including the poignant 13th from Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to be nominated in this category. Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature Moonlight is a serious contender for Best Picture, having racked up 156 wins this awards season including a recent Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

After #OscarsSoWhite sparked a conversation about race within Hollywood and the Academy, Tinseltown was forced to reevaluate the ways that its structures reinforce racial biases that provide less opportunities for people of color and devalues their work. If change is to happen, we have to examine what types of stories are valued and who is telling them, both in front of and behind the camera.

The Academy responded, adding almost 700 new voting members, 41 percent of whom are people of color and 46 percent women. When diversity is allowed a seat at the table, a platform is created for vital narratives that position people of color as whole and complex beings.

Hollywood too often relishes in the pain of people of color, while simultaneously there are millions of POC waiting to see someone reminiscent of themselves, unsure of their place in the world. Even when represented, black stories are seldom representative. It’s easy to start questioning the limitations of your possibilities when you don’t see yourself reflected in the things you love, whether it’s pop culture, history or careers.

That’s what makes Hidden Figures so revolutionary. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson – three black NASA mathematicians who played significant roles in the launch and safe return of the first American space missions. Hidden Figures celebrates the necessity of these brilliant scientists–and their accomplishments in the face of massive societal and institutional barriers–during a time when black women were seen as anything but necessary.

It forces us to revisit one of the most monumental events in American history and acknowledge the unsung heroes that made this mission possible. It’s not a story that many people have heard before. But it’s one we all deserved to.

The labor of women, but especially women of color, is undervalued and overlooked. We are glaringly absent from textbooks and our whitewashed histories are only available during Black History Month or through elective courses. What impact could the stories of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan have had on generations of women of color who continue to face under-representation in the Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics fields? What impact will they have now?

Hidden Figures is not concerned with the plight of these women, but instead Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer–whose Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan was the film’s sole acting nod, despite Henson’s compelling performance as the lead, Katherine Johnson–portray their characters with a triumph that paints them as anything but victims. These are brilliant women with a fire in their hearts and the brains to back it up. This film is a healing tool for people of color desperate to exist outside of the context of whiteness.

The Academy has taken a step towards celebrating the life, work and art of black people, especially black women. With her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay calls out the racist history behind America’s penal system and challenges perceptions about the War on Drugs. She has dared to reclaim history and for that, she herself has made it. Just two years after a Best Director snub for Selma–which would have made her the first black female nominee–DuVernay finds herself crossing that barrier in the Best Documentary category. Far too often, women of color have had to create spaces where none presently exist. To celebrate the accomplishments of women of color, we must first recognize them.

While 13th does technically deal with the oppression of black Americans in its examination of the prison industrial complex, it is a powerful exploration of the policies that have disproportionately targeted people of color, especially men, in America. It’s far more interested in reframing history and dispelling the idea that justice is universal than it is in creating trauma porn. These images are not here to absolve anyone of their guilt, but to elicit discomfort and inspire a rage so deep that complacency is no longer an option. There is fury and hurt surrounding the themes of 13th but there is power in refusing to accept an identity that was shaped without permission.

Black stories are often watered down in neatly-defined assumptions of the black experience. They are rife with characters coated in stereotypes that arose from fear of what white America could not understand. Otherwise, the triumph of the black protagonist is buried in slave narratives that center whiteness as the central conflict that must be overcome. It’s important to question the types of stories that emerge instead of accepting tokenized representations.

It’s best said by writer Jelani Cobb in 13th: “[black people want] to be understood as full, complicated human beings.” It’s a simple concept but one would be hard-pressed to find many notable examples in recent Hollywood history. There’s Dee Rees’ striking 2011 queer drama Pariah, Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015 black nerd hit Dope and the most relevant example, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore masterpiece, Moonlight, which has swept awards season and been hailed as one of the year’s most moving films.

Moonlight is a prime example of the artistic viability of films that humanize people of color. We meet Chiron or “Little” as a boy and follow him through three stages of his life as he tries to figure out who he is, how he loves and how to reconcile that with who he thinks he’s supposed to be in inner-city Miami. Little is all too aware of the effects of his environment, but is allowed to live outside his circumstances. He exists in multitudes and like most of us, stumbles through life and love with a trepidation reminiscent of typical adolescence. He is able to grow into himself in a way that black boys seldom have the freedom to. The heart-rending film is up for eight awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Nothing has ever existed like Moonlight before, despite its realistic storyline. It is a coming-of-age story for a population seen too early as adults. Even as Chiron enters adulthood as complex as his surroundings, there are no assumptions made about his character or his morality. To be portrayed as free and ever-changing individuals that aren’t hardened by the weight of their circumstances provides people of color with the affirmation needed to move forward in the face of marginalization.

Black films often appeal to sympathy, but when universal stories are told through and by people of color, they evoke empathy. There aren’t many people who can see themselves in any of the characters in 2014 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, but it’s easy to identify with parts of Chiron. For folks who think their story is the only one, who don’t know that you can be both black and queer, Moonlight is the difference between isolation and validation. When we can’t see ourselves, we become the images projected onto us.

There is not one model of a person of color. We are as different as we are complicated. Sometimes we are scientists, mathematicians, writers, directors, composers. Sometimes people exploring our sexuality or creatives trying to make honest art. Sometimes we are kids trying to find which skin fits best, desperately searching for examples of ourselves in the world. Increasingly, we are award nominees. And hopefully, award winners.

Film allows for reflections of human experiences and it’s time that those include people of color. The Oscars have taken one step towards true diversity by acknowledging poignant and humanizing depictions of marginalized people. Our stories matter and our lives matter.

The most attended film festival in the world, the Berlinale just ended. Check out the 20 films to keep your eye on this year.

  • Author:Tobi Abdul

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