Although the presence of more black films is praised by many as a sign of progress, recent hits such as The Help, Django and 12 Years a Slave all share a striking similarity — they are what Roxanne Gay coined as “struggle narratives” in her book, Bad Feminist. Struggle narratives are typically set in a historical time period and tell the story of a black protagonist who experiences extreme oppression. Surprisingly, however, even those black Oscar contenders that are not period pieces still portray a painfully narrow view of black life.
Between 2009 and 2014, only seven of the 55 films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards featured a predominantly black cast or had a black protagonist. Of these, four films were historical dramas set either during slavery or during the mid-20th-century struggle for civil rights with characters who experience the violence and turmoil of both time periods.
Although the remaining three films nominated for Best Picture depict contemporary black life, two of them do so through similarly problematic lenses. The protagonists of Precious and The Blind Side both come from impoverished homes characterized by their weak family ties and histories of abuse. The protagonist of The Blind Side, however is able to turn his life around, attend college and eventually become a professional football player… but only with the intervention of a white family.
Despite the popularity of these films, what does it say about our society when the majority of critically-acclaimed films starring blacks are either historical narratives in which African Americans face the most grotesque forms of oppression or contemporary stories of depraved urban life?
The inundation of period pieces can surely impact our ability as audiences to understand and empathize with current race inequalities. By constantly looking to the past, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we have made immense racial progress. Although such dramas educate us about our history and might have even been created with the intent of asking “how far have we come?” the answer becomes distorted when there are so few films that highlight where we currently are. The absence of these stories forces us to use these period pieces — which often involve unfathomable violence — as a barometer against which it is difficult to understand the more subtle gravity of our current racial landscape.
In July 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a study which analyzed the racial attitudes of Americans and found that before 2014, the majority of white respondents felt that the U.S. had made all of the “changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.” This changed quite significantly in 2015 when surveys revealed that only 40 percent of white Americans felt that the necessary changes have been made as compared to 50 percent who did not. The white respondents in 2015 noted that the national news coverage about race related issues is what opened their eyes to the inequalities still imbedded within American society.
It’s certainly an improvement that the majority of white Americans are now aware of racial inequities, but it remains troubling that 40 percent of those surveyed still are not. The silver screen does not have the power to completely eradicate racism, the ability for news coverage to change public attitudes speaks to the success that entertainment media might have in doing the same. Thus, the fact that critically-acclaimed films fail to explore contemporary black life with narratives that extend beyond just self-imposed poverty and abuse allows those 40 percent of respondents to remain unconvinced that our society is in need of improvement.
Black films that grapple with universal themes while also dealing with more pedestrian challenges have largely failed to accrue critical acclaim, which suggests that the Academy needs a reality check. The absence of this universality in Oscar-nominated black films exacerbates the idea that blacks are somehow different because they don’t share the same struggles and triumphs that are experienced by other racial groups.
Consider some of the predominantly-white films that these movies were competing against for Best Picture. Although the majority touch upon serious subject matter or took place in other time periods, the range of genres and themes in these films is immense. Taken together, these films depict all aspects of the human condition with characters that are both enemies and heroes, intelligent and dim-witted, successful and downtrodden.
Wildly unrealistic lifestyles such as those depicted in the dark comedy Wolf of Wall Street balance out the simple family life represented in The Kids Are Alright. Sci-fi films such as Inception take us to other dimensions, while biographical dramas such as Moneyball ground us back on the baseball field.
All of these stories are extraordinary in their own ways, but the wide array of characters and narratives that they depict creates the sense that white people are multi-dimensional. This normalizes the white experience and provides the public with a multi-faceted understanding of white people that can easily be translated into real life.
This consistent failure to acknowledge more diverse black narratives at the Oscars is important to be made aware of because, for better or for worse, the Academy possess the power to shape public tastes and dictate which films we will remember for years to come. The fact that critically-acclaimed films represent only a small slice of black American life speaks volumes about how our society currently views those lives and it will shape how millions of moviegoers come to understand the black experience. Especially at this historical moment when thousands across the nation are mobilizing to declare that “Black Lives Matter,” it’s imperative that the Academy begin to consider a wider array of films that depict black life more comprehensively.
Tamar is a 21-year-old Brooklyn native attending Wellesley College. Her free time is often spent reading, writing, dancing, telling stories and getting lost in re-runs of A Different World. Check out her website here.