We are dancing through another awards season in which the landscape of films being held up for applause is discouragingly lacking in colour variance. It’s our annual reminder that melanin on screen doesn’t receive the same acknowledgement as films starring – and crafted by – primarily white creative teams. Most disheartening is that the entertainment industry has been experiencing a continued boom from telling stories about and by people of colour. Yet, there are again massive omissions when it comes to diverse film celebration in the main stream.
Cynthia Erivo was granted a deserved nomination for her work in Harriet, but remains the only Black person in all of the acting categories, with Antonio Banderas joining her to make up two minorities in a list of twenty.
Queen and Slim, which displayed Lena Waithe’s expanding craft as a writer, told a deeply compelling and award worthy story was ignored by the Oscars. There was also word from director Melina Matsouka that Golden Globe voters refused to even screen the film for contention.
Just Mercy, containing phenomenal performances by Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan (which also represented a big step as a producing venture for the latter), was ignored by the Oscars.
Even Eddie Murphy’s brash, yet relatable, depiction in Dolemite Is My Name was some of the finest work in a year of fantastic cinema – yet still misses Oscar recognition. Murphy may be the least surprised by this phenomenon; back in 1988 while presenting the 60th Academy Awards, he proclaimed his apprehension in appearing, stating: “I will give this award, but Black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you to recognize us.”That recognition remains a struggle now over 30 years later. The stories we tell and the art we create all paint a picture of a planet full of different types of people. Yet, the movies that are gilded continue to be unbalanced on the scales of equal representation.
As a Black actor, I have pushed my way into – and through – a business that has a tendency to limit the reach of its Black performers. Whilst we’ve made strides since the days of Blacks on screen being fetishised as criminals or purveyors of violence, there still appears to be a limited number of slots available for us to succeed on a large scale.
Even Robert Downey Jr. recently stated that his portrayal of Kirk Lazarus in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder could likely not happen today. This was a satirical depiction of a white actor performing in Blackface to gain further notoriety and award contention – a comedic look at the toxic Hollywood mindset, that ironically gained Downey Jr. his second Academy Award nomination.
So where is the path for change? Joaquin Phoenix made a strong statement when receiving his BAFTA award, saying: “It is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it.” For people of colour it can be difficult to accept this type of public allyship, especially when it runs the risk of being performative or a possible flex of Joaquin’s “wokeness”. At the same time it can be challenging for potential white allies to concede their own privilege – not as an admission of guilt, but as a step in building empathy and trust. For me, this is where the start of the the solution sits. It is not about guilt – it is about acknowledgement of bias and the recognition of a long history wherein brown faces have been seen as lesser value to the art we create. Identify the behaviour and change the conduct.
I cannot stress enough the importance of seeing people who look like you on screen, not only in real life – it is the keystone of progress. I would not have even fathomed building a career in the entertainment industry without witnessing the examples of non-white faces that came before me. Merely allowing us to play every once in a while is no longer adequate; seeing people of colour recognised for our hard, remarkable work is how we can adjust an already skewed perspective of our place in the world. So much of our sense of self is built from the media we intake – who we see and how we see them. It’s impossible to showcase a look at the real world if we continue presenting with the color turned off.
Trevor Dion Nicholas is a Black American actor and musician living in London, England.