Around this time last year, a large part of the discussion around the cinema award season focused on 12 Years A Slave, and its possible chances on winning prizes at the Academy Awards.
While there are myriad problems with the Oscars, the reason why it matters is because it remains the closest thing the West has as a seal of film excellence. It’s a flawed system – and may have a limited shelf life – but right now, it’s the best we’ve got.
An Academy Award isn’t just a gold statue. It often helps to propel movies, and their specific subject matters into the wider social consciousness – especially if they’re not part of the summer blockbuster season. For much of last year, Steve McQueen was asked about the wider issue of slavery almost as much as he was asked about making 12 Years A Slave.
Well, for 12 Years A Slave in 2014, read Selma in 2015. For clarity’s sake, this isn’t a piece on the merits of Selma. Not that I have any inside info, but I imagine a review of it will appear on this site soon enough. Also read Montré Aza Missouri‘s assessment ‘Selma’ finally liberates the political legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nor is my focus on the movie being largely ignored at this year’s Academy Awards. Because despite the lack of nominations, Selma has made a dent in cultural conversations. Talk of systemic racism, civil rights, and centreing black people in their own stories have been the ripple effect of Ava DuVernay’s film. As Stacia L. Brown recently wrote, Oscar or not, Ava’s already succeeded.
But the success of 12 Years A Slave and Selma has a worrisome attendant. There’s nothing wrong with the films, but they may also indicate that wider mainstream inclusion of black stories comes with a caveat.
While 12 Years A Slave was a big success in last year’s award season, there was a lot less recognition for Ryan Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station. Both deal with issues of American racism, but one involved a practice (chattel slavery) that is no longer widespread in America. The other deals with the incessant death ofblack teens at the hands of police.
Bar some recognition at the Independent Spirit Awards, Fruitvale Station was largely left on the outside looking in during award season. So much so, the comedian W. Kamau Bell instigated the hashtag #WhereIsFruitvale
This year has shown a disconcerting symmetry. While Selma has been largely feted by critics, a lot less attention has been directed towards Gina Prince-Bythewood’s, Beyond The Lights. With a black woman protagonist, it deals with issues such mental health, the downside of fame, patriarchal demands of women, and the simple – but important – act of love between black people.
The topic of showing black love on screen has been a repeated motif of Prince-Bythewood’s work, which for my money, was best exemplified with Love and Basketball. It remains one of the most heartfelt – and underrated – films I’ve ever seen.
Prince-Bythewood expatiated on the intangible, but potent factor engendered by Beyond The Lights. “…a 17-year-old Black boy said, ‘I didn’t really believe in hope and love before but this movie changed me.”
So why are only specific types of black-centred stories gaining mainstream traction?
Through no fault of their own, are 12 Years A Slave and Selma measuring sticks for how the dominant culture understands race? Do many white people get to watch, feel humanity with those who were oppressed in the past, and then leave the cinema thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have that problem anymore”, all the while overlooking how white privilege asserts itself in society right now?
Not a single word of this should be taken as a dismissal of 12 Years A Slave or Selma. They are both magnificent pieces of work, and it’s not their responsibility to fix contemporary racism. The responsibility lies with studios, distributors, and audiences, because we have a problem if some of them need the distance of time to truly understand people’s suffering.
Rachel Shukert brilliantly pointed out these faultlines: “I want to see Lupita Nyong’o as an unlucky-in-love wedding planner in a frothy romantic comedy. I want to see David Oyelowo race against the clock to save his wife and child in a big-budget action thriller; I want Chiwetel Ejiofor to sweep in as the miracle bachelor in a Nancy Myers movie. I want to see Idris Elba as fucking James Bond already, instead of just hearing about how great Idris Elba would be as James Bond.”
This is important because culture acts as society’s mirror image. And when black lives are reflected back, too often the reflection has been one of a distorted funhouse mirror, showing an ugliness that never existed.
Prince-Bythewood said of her struggles in the film industry; “I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on people of color as real people.”
Real people. Not thugs, skets, or thots. People. There is no one black story. There is no one black anything. Once that becomes fully understood, then maybe a black boy won’t be on the cusp of adulthood before he realises that black love exists.#
 – I do have inside info.
 – That one’s a bit more widespread.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. “Pop culture to sport, and back again“
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).