On The Collection: #OscarsSoWhite and the Friends of the Black Oscar Nominees Award
In approximately 1,000 words, we invite you to confront a work of visual media (film, photograph, painting, or object) in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture (1950 – present) and reflect upon a public or private future that the maker(s) of that piece envision, have envisioned, or a future that might be imagined through your engagement with the piece.
At the end of the 89th Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, 2017, Bonnie and Clyde nearly robbed Moonlight of its Oscar for best picture. When Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty opened the envelope and called out “La La Land,” it was a televised blunder that signaled to some Hollywood’s racialized anxieties writ large. Although the flummoxed pair were not to blame–and the mistake corrected dramatically by one of the producers of Damien Chazelle’s musical–the moment felt like a rebuke to the evening’s wave of Black nominees and winners. Among them: Viola Davis for Fences; Mahershala Ali for Moonlight; Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for the Moonlight screenplay.
The mix-up also shifted focus away from one of the more intriguing facts of the evening. In 2016, four of the five feature documentaries nominated were made by Black filmmakers.
As the National Museum of African American History and Culture expands its collection, these works will help shape the museum’s use of documentary to underpin historical subjects like James Baldwin. As well, these four nominees give additional spin to Wilbert Rideau’s “Friends of Black Oscar Nominees Award”, the award given to the incarcerated prison journalist, Wilbert Rideau, to acknowledge his integral role in the 1998 Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature nominee, The Farm: Angola USA.
In order of their release into theaters, they were: Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, an exhaustive and nuanced look at the journey of Orenthal James Simpson from an incandescent athlete in San Francisco’s Potrero neighborhood housing project to prime suspect in the murder of wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Brown to an inmate in a Nevada penitentiary; Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated, about a young man whose autistic silence was pierced by Disney animated films; Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which argues boldly but not without wrinkles that one sentence in the 13th Amendment helped support Jim Crow laws but also lead to the ongoing mass incarceration of Blacks; and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. In his elegiac gem, the Haitian-born director utilizes letters, newsreel images, as well as feature film clips as a tribute to Baldwin’s searing intellect but also as a way to honor a project the writer never completed: a book about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. “I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did,” Samuel L. Jackson says in a transfixing voiceover, reciting a letter Baldwin wrote his agent in 1979.
More than the YouTube video of the ceremony’s gaffe, this cohort of documentaries will offer cinephiles and scholars reasons to return to that Oscar year in the coming decades. Not only because of the historic number of Black nominees and their stylistic variety but because of the subject matter and execution of these films. Three of them link questions of communal trauma to ongoing abuse and insult, especially by the police. 13th and I Am Not Your Negro reference protests around the police killings of unarmed men and women of color. After introducing Baldwin in black-and-white, Peck cuts to grainy, nighttime video of Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. In a vitally sensitive move by DuVernay, cell phone video of the deaths of Oscar Grant and Eric Garner appear with captions stating that each man’s family granted the filmmaker permission to use their loved one’s final moments.
Each filmmaker employs unique directorial gestures. DuVernay returns to the word criminal as a graphic element to emphasize the theme of the criminalizing of Blackness. And she introduces a compelling roster of experts, some who weren’t especially well known before the film’s appearance on Netflix. Chock-full of facts but also interpretations, DuVernay’s film tries—at times too hard—to be unified field theory of everything.
With its potent juxtapositions, Peck’s film is a work of vigorous and visual elegance that complements Baldwin’s rhetorical force and flourishes. (It’s hard not to get a kick out of seeing talk show host Dick Cavett—one of the best—looking out of his depth talking race with Baldwin.) Even so, Peck’s choices have left him rightly open to criticisms about marginalizing Baldwin’s homosexuality in order to bolster his own views on Black masculinity. One gets the sense that Baldwin’s culturally savvy activism resonated, too, with Peck’s own work as Haiti’s minister of culture (from 1996 to 1997).
But it’s the moments of overlap, the way these films share images that underscore that each is reckoning with our current moment—one characterized by Black Lives Matter activism but also influenced by of a storehouse of vexing images from Hollywood and the nightly news. It may not be a surprise, but it is damning and telling that Duvernay and Peck use clips from the film that birthed the movie industry: D.W. Griffith’s ode to white supremacy The Birth of a Nation. That deserves its own essay.
Clocking in at nearly eight hours, O.J.: Made in America, produced by ESPN, won 2016’s Oscar. On the heels of that triumph, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rules so that multi-part and limited series docs—despite a theatrical release—would no longer be eligible for consideration.
It’s too cynical to imagine that Academy voters went for the documentary because the company town—its glamour, its violence—was the star. Edelman treats Los Angeles as an actual place with a history of beckoning but also marginalizing Black folk. The case he builds around police violence and civic repression and its relationship to the response to O.J.’s acquittal is impressive. The evidence of the violent devolution of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson’s marriage is methodical and compassionate.
Still, what remains vivid is the story of the Los Angeles Police Department’s decades-long disregard for Black citizens, captured perhaps most memorably in footage of the utter decimation of an apartment at the corner of 39th and Dalton Avenue in 1988, during a drug raid by the cops. The cumulative effect of LAPD abuse and overreach is part of the reason O.J. was allowed back into the fold of the Black community during the murder trial.
For film folk of gravitas, the Oscars are a hinky measure of the art. The best designation has proven vulnerable to time, to the tango of art and commerce—not to mention the come-hither campaigning of studios and distributors. Still the awards (and that bedeviled televised event) continue to be a telling reference point. The Academy Award provides a way to read the many moods of Hollywood—how it sees itself, how it wants the world to see it—and often of the nation.
The nominations that year came after two years of the hashtag activism of #oscarsowhite and on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. As a then New York City real estate magnate, Trump makes an appearance in 13th calling for the death penalty for the five young men—later exonerated—accused of the rape of a jogger in Central Park.
Given the hazardous terrain 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America traverse, it’s tempting to treat Life, Animated as an outlier. To be reductive: It features a well-to-do, white family navigating their son’s demanding condition. If there is any racially essentialist point to be made about Williams’ place amid his fellow nominees, it might hinge on notions of empathy and how growing up Black in the U.S. can build an exquisite sensitivity to being outside the norms.
One of the ways filmmakers and filmgoers can track whether a watershed moment is an authentic turning point is to keep track of the progress of the filmmakers. Are they working? Are they continuing to tell stories? DuVernay—a prolific and disciplined filmmaker—has seen three projects come to screens big and small: the TV series Queen Sugar; Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time; and When They See Us, Netflix’s rending drama about the so-called Central Park Five. In April, Williams’s documentary Apollo–about the storied Harlem theater–opened the Tribeca Film Festival. Peck followed I Am Not Your Negro with a drama, The Young Karl Marx. In 2018, Edelman inked a deal to direct a biopic about baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente.
O.J.: Made in America, 13th and I Am Not Your Negro will continue to doggedly offer context, as if insisting, “this is how we got here, America.” Black filmmakers are especially deft at measuring the waves of history and how we as a nation navigate them. They have seized—or created—opportunities to ask questions of us all.
For decades to come, the 2016 nominees will stand as evidence of the obvious: there isn’t—and should never be—only one representative of Black vision at work in the arts. Watched separately, each of the 2016 nominees has plenty to offer by way of aesthetic choices and craft.
Watched in concert—to repurpose Baldwin’s note to his agent—“they bang against and reveal each other.” In doing so, they reveal us.