It's that time of year again--the time when award shows want to attract diverse audiences without rewarding diverse actors.
This year, the Golden Globes tapped Terry Crews and Danai Gurira as presenters of the 2019 nominations list. Meanwhile, Kevin Hart was tapped as the host of the 2019 Oscars, but has since stepped down amid controversy for homophobic jokes and tweets. Despite Hart's current firestorm, the fact that both awards shows looked to Black actors is indicative of a trend in Hollywood -- using actors of color for optics only, as if the actors' inherent diversity can be used as a quick band-aid to the large and intricately-woven problem of racism and discrimination.
This isn't the first time Hollywood has employed this trick of utilizing people of color to assuage angry audiences. For the 2016 Oscars, the year #OscarsSoWhite finally took off, producers tried to fend off cries of racism by having Chris Rock as the host and inviting POC actors as presenters. The list included Priyanka Chopra, Common, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Byung-hun Lee, Dev Patel and Kerry Washington, among others. But the roster of presenters couldn't make audience members ignore the fact that Oscar voters overlooked films like Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton, films that challenged audiences and succeeded at the box office by telling stories that hadn't been explored.
It would seem like the habit of wanting Black viewership while not properly awarding Black talent is continuing with the 2019 Golden Globe nominations. We might have watched the nominations ceremony for Crews and Gurira, but their presence were two of the most positive moments from the event. The actual nominations, on the other hand, leave much to be desired.
This year, the Golden Globes' Best Motion Picture nominees for Drama and Comedy include Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, but John David Washington is the only African-American nominee for best actor in a drama. He's only one of two actors of color in the same category, the other being Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mahershala Ali is the only actor of color nominated for best supporting actor for his role in Green Book, and Regina King is the only actress of color nominated for her supporting role in If Beale Street Could Talk. While Stephan James leads If Beale Street Could Talk, he's not nominated for the film; instead he's nominated for his role in Amazon's drama Homecoming. The beauty of Barry Jenkins' writing and adept adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk garnered a nod, but his genius as a director was completely overlooked. Ryan Coogler's best picture nominee Black Panther somehow didn't earn him a nod for best director either. There are even more snubs than this (which we have covered in depth in the links below this article).
Also noteworthy is that Green Book is one of the leading films in the Golden Globes race, earning five nominations overall. However, it's also a film that has been widely criticized by critics and the family of Dr. Don Shirley, the virtuoso pianist Ali portrays in the film. As Brooke Obie wrote in her review for Shadow and Act:
"In [Peter] Farrelly's Green Book, Black people don't even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives. Instead, the film centers the story of a racist white man who makes an unlikely Black friend on a journey through the American south and becomes slightly less racist."
Obie went on to write that the film "only exists as a prop to enhance white understanding of white racism and white privilege in this country."
Why then, has such a film become one of the most nominated? Unfortunately, it could be the result of a symptom of Hollywood's penchant for under-rewarding Black films; if a Black film must be heavily rewarded, the film must be one that caters to white fragility.
The theme seems to run through the Golden Globes nominations. Not only are Black actors underrepresented in a majority of the categories, but the films with the most recognition are films that could be argued as ones that do not interrogate whiteness or disrupt the power structure of whiteness when addressing race relations. Green Book's crime of telling Dr. Shirley's story from Tony Lip's point of view makes the film gentle enough for Hollywood to proclaim it one of the best films of the year. However, other films like If Beale Street Could Talk and even Black Panther, both of which touch on complex themes of the multifaceted Black experience with Black people at the center of the stories, are not given as much shine as they probably deserve.
Even though there is no white savior in BlacKkKlansman Washington's portrayal in the Spike Lee film can be argued as a contentious one to reward, since his portrayal of Ron Stallworth is still that of a character that works within whiteness and utilizes whiteness to gain some semblance of acceptance as he takes down the KKK. While BlacKkKlansman is much more hardcore than Green Book, Stallworth remains a Black character who has to carry much of the onus of teaching race to his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Through Stallworth, the audience's hand is still being held when it comes to discussions of race.
At some point, Hollywood will realize that Black audiences want to see more than just Black faces on screen. What we want isn't a condescending quick fix to a longstanding issue. We also don't want to see the same types of films rewarded over and over again. What we want is for Black actors to be seen as more than just a demographic. We also want to see films about our multifaceted, poetic and human experiences--and the filmmakers who make them--get the recognition they deserve.