Let the games begin. For audiences tired or uninterested in the arcane goings-on of the numerous guilds and critics organizations all attempting to exert some power and influence over the hearts and minds of Academy voters, Tuesday, Jan. 24, must have seemed like the arrival of Christmas after a series of unimaginable postponements and botched rainchecks. Yet, despite all of that, we waited and wondered, for instance, about the latest rule changes affecting the determination of the Best Picture nominees. Would we have the five of old or 10 or some inscrutable in-between?
Newsweek’s Annual Oscar Roundtable, the last gasp for prognastication, hit newsstands just prior to the announcements, featuring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Christopher Plummer and Tilda Swinton. Reunions abound among the ranks. Clooney and Davis shared a space station in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris. Fassbender and Theron co-pilot Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (the Alien prequel that’s not an Alien prequel, even though it is). Swinton and Clooney earned nominations for Michael Clayton (Swinton won Supporting Actress) and set the screen aflame in Burn After Reading.
Of these presumed favorites, Clooney, Plummer and Davis had their tickets punched for the next round. One of the more compelling races lands Davis in direct competition with The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep for Best Actress. The two front-running juggernauts were co-stars and co-nominees for the 2008 film Doubt. But, this year, thanks to The Help and its revisionist look at Civil Rights-era Mississippi, Davis and Octavia Spenser, a first-time Best Supporting Actress nominee, carry the 2011 weight of black folks’ collective expectations, all of our hopes and dreams, especially after the dry season that was 2010.
Those of you who regularly follow our film coverage know that I was not a fan of The Help, but I will celebrate the likely wins of Davis and Spenser as if their joy and naked gold statues were my own because, on some level, there will hopefully be some greater victory for me to claim. Naively, I still have faith in the notion that the Oscar will open up roles for Davis beyond those that require her to sit or stand and cry with quiet dignity. Has anyone cried onscreen more than Viola Davis? In Antwone Fisher, Doubt, The Help and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, she cried enough to sink the 3D re-release of The Titanic. Can someone cast her as an analyst in the new Bourne movie or as the MILF that Fassbender shamelessly courts in Steve McQueen’s next film?
I joke, but behind the humor is a real plea, a request that extends beyond the industry to hire her for more diverse roles. Davis addressed this briefly during the roundtable discussion, but then, as it likely does here, the topic remains a bit of a non-starter that merely draws polite nods until someone figures out how to shift the conversation.
I would argue that the real imperative falls to audiences who express their preferences by voting at the box office. Therein lies the real top prize. Black audiences have been conditioned to rush out during opening weekend for an all-black uplift tale or the annual Tyler Perry home movie. During the opening weekend run of Red Tails, I was a guest on The Nathan Ivey Show (on 1230 AM, The Buzz) and we discussed the relative merits of this studio-distributed film backed by the deep pockets of George Lucas.
Black folks would be better served seeking out smaller, independent African American projects like 2011’s film festival favorite Pariah (from Spike Lee). Why rush to throw dollars at studio fare when the track record shows that studios will only continue to produce more of the same generic inspirational pieces, while the potential exists to develop and maintain more complex narratives with real vision in the black independent movement?
And mainstream audiences have a stake here as well. All too often, I have conversations with filmgoers who prove willing to sit through the latest treacly Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but refuse to go see a film with a predominantly black cast. There needs to be real reciprocity because the shared suffering could become the rallying cry to spur studios to embrace films like Shame or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (interestingly, both films were directed by Brits, Steve McQueen and Stephen Daldry, respectively) where the world is far more integrated without drawing undue attention to the multiplicity.
One day, Viola Davis — or the next generation’s version of her — won’t have to bemoan the sorry state of roles for women of color and face the polite blacklash from a room of her peers. And it will be a victory we can all celebrate.