As this year’s Black History Month wound down, the Feb. 26 Academy Awards ceremony couldn’t have taken place at a better time.
One year after the so-called “white-out” controversy, African-American actors, actresses and filmmakers showed up among the nominations and the winners in record numbers. Although some would argue that the virtual absence of African-Americans in the 2016 awards was less the result of racist exclusion and more a function of a lack of top-notch performances and films by blacks, given the previous year’s slight of films such as “Belle” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” last year’s protest was merely a bit late and nevertheless still valid.
In the wake of that outcry, the Academy Awards reportedly worked to diversify its host of voters and its board. However, it is an insult to “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” to suggest that the additional minority awards voters are the reasons why these remarkable films rose to top of the nominations cream. If these three movies had been in the mix of 2016 films, I can think of four movies of that year that could have bumped off the nomination list by any one of these films.
That said, it did a lot of folks proud to these productions among the awards choices in 2017. It was a gratifying relief to see Viola Davis finally get her gold statuette props after a career of stellar performances on the big and small screen. And while the story told in “Moonlight” was not everyone’s cinematic cup of tea (especially among many church-going movie fans), it was great to see a predominantly African-American film break through the Best Picture glass ceiling. That film also won the Best Adapted Screenplay and saw its cast member Mahershala Ali win the Best Supporting Actor (and become the first Muslim to take home an Academy Award for acting).
In the final tally, actors and filmmakers of color (including “Lion”’s Dev Patel of Indian descent) were represented by 19 nominations, with multiple nods in the Best Picture, Supporting Actor and Actress, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay categories.
That change of fortune for minorities was slightly obscured by the Best Picture Award presentation fiasco that thankfully was quickly corrected. The higher visibility of African-American actors among the nominees also obscured a couple of snubs.
Taraji P. Henson should have been accorded a nomination for her portrayal of NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson in “Hidden Figures.”
It could be surmised that maybe the film’s separate subplots of the three primary African-American women put Ms. Henson in the no-women’s land of being cast in too prominent a role for a supporting actress while at the same time her character’s story yielded significant screen time with the other tales of challenge of her two other primary cast members (Octavia Spencer, who did get a nomination, and Janelle Monáe), possibly pushing her out of Best Actress consideration.
Also absolutely forgotten in the conversations leading up to the major awards were Don Cheadle, who gave arguably the definitive portrayal of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” which hit the movie screens last April. His performance notwithstanding, the Best Actor category was particularly strong this year, making his slight somewhat understandable. However his co-star Emayatzy Corinealdi, who played his wife Frances, was an electrifying supporting role turn worthy of a nomination nod.
Given that one could look with questioning askance at two of the Best Supporting Actress nominees (Michelle Williams and Nicole Kidman), there was plenty of room for her. Alas, such is the fate too often of actors whose films are released early in the year.
There were other slights as well (such as Tom Hanks in “Sully” and the film “Patriots Day”). There will, however, always be worthy actors and films edged out by others. That needs to be remembered moving forward.
The hallmarks of award-winning films remain the same. The storytelling should be compelling and thought provoking, the acting should be prolifically astounding and the directing deftly masterful. The challenge to all involved — whites and minorities alike — is to do just that.
And then, let the major awards chips fall where they may. While Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards provide some welcome validation, it is never the final say concerning the accounting of the finest films of any year. That arbitrator lies in the hearts and minds of the audiences.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Carlos Holmes, of North Bowers Beach, is the director of News Services at Delaware State University and a self-professed movie snob.