Every weekend, numerous websites, including this one, inform us of the short-term box office grosses of various films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which itself has raked in a whopping $591 million in short-term box office gross in this country alone. This notion of box office profit as the guiding measurement of a film’s value seems to have a different significance depending upon whether that film is considered a white film or a black film. That is to say, that the value of a black film is so often only noted by its theatrical box office grosses, where the same cannot be said about a white film, whose value is judged by a different set of aesthetic and economic criteria that extends beyond just the film’s box office performance. A white film can do poorly at the box office and still reap numerous awards in national and foreign competitions for such things as artistic bravery in subject matter, to perfection in acting, direction, cinematography, editing and its overall production. The grand film festivals and award shows from Cannes in France, to The American Film Institute, The Golden Globes, DGA awards and The Oscars bestow a lucrative cultural capital upon films through awards that give a particular film a prestige that adds to the profit-making potential of a film far beyond its initial theatrical release. This prestige affects not only the critical standing of the film among scholars and critics, but it also secures for the film a long-term profit-making ability as the film plays in other international or national ancillary markets in many different formats and platforms. The awards mark a particular film as an artistic standard that other filmmakers, here and abroad, must aspire to if they want to be recognized as more than just ‘corporate suits’ following orders but instead be recognized as artists working in the medium of film.
Yet, as black film and filmmakers expand beyond the narrow confines of the urban dramas of drugs, gangs and street violence, the films and the filmmakers are being met with new challenges against their artistic integrity that is directly related to the incontestable fact that the American global entertainment industry is white-controlled. It is these new challenges that are the subject of this piece that I will describe as white microaggressions against black cinematic prestige.
Author and cultural critic Touré has quoted NYU Professor Peggy Davis’ definition of white microaggression as, “subtle, stunning, often automatic… put downs of Blacks by Whites,” They serve as reminders of purported Black inferiority.” (1) In the art of cinema, these white microaggressions are often manifested in the most stunning and unsubtle ways that are intended to cast doubt, tarnish or devalue a black film and/or filmmaker when award season rolls around. Whether it is the silence of commentary regarding why a particular black film, otherwise known as Get Out, has made over $100 million, or when a white actor like Sylvester Stallone “forgets” to thank the black director of a film during an Oscar acceptance speech, white microaggressions against black films and filmmakers are at their most detectable level during award season when the competition for cinematic prestige makes many a white liberal discard their pretensions of equality, fairness and impartiality to tacitly fight for white films and white filmmakers as a standard of artistic superiority.
The most recent and unsubtle white microaggression against black cinematic prestige was the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s nomination of Jordan Peele’s wildly successful horror film, Get Out in the category of comedy/musical. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a mostly white organization that controls the Golden Globe Awards, which are often considered a harbinger for the Oscars. Despite any critical reassessments and/or audience ambivalence, Get Out was marketed and released as a horror film by Universal Pictures in 2017. The details of the story are horrific and strike multiple chords of racial fear and prejudice in both white and black viewers alike. To categorize Get Out as a comedy (although the film does contain comedic elements) is itself a deliberate form of white microaggression against black cinematic prestige. Moreover, whereas a film that has grossed $175 million domestically and $78 million in foreign markets usually commands the respect and attention of the white “captains of industry,” (particularly at the beginning of the year which is a notoriously difficult box office period), Get Out is not being accorded the respect it rightly deserves in my opinion. It is a rare and serendipitous occurrence when a first-time film director makes a directorial debut that grosses $254 million worldwide with an original, non-sequel project, that was the most talked about film of the year. And to further emphasize the obvious, if these accomplishments were from a white, first-time director, he or she would have been hailed a genius and no doubt quickly tapped to helm some superhero blockbuster film or a Disney iteration of the Star Wars franchise. Not to imply that Jordan Peele has not received any benefits from his spectacular directorial debut, but I only highlight the fact one of the consequences of white control over the American Global Entertainment Industry is that black filmmakers like Peele and Ryan Coogler (who directed Creed with a box office gross $173 million worldwide) have to make films that make stratospheric box office numbers to even be reluctantly considered an A-list director or have stable careers in the industry. By contrast, white filmmakers (e.g., Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malick, the Coen Brothers) whose films have made less money, but have garnered much prestige in the form of awards and award nominations are immediately considered A-list material and have stable careers in the industry.
Returning to the issue of white microaggression against black cinematic prestige, who could ever forget the miss-reading of the Best Picture award at the 2017 Academy Awards Ceremony for Barry Jenkins Moonlight with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? Whether this first-time-ever in the history of the Academy Awards mistake was intentional or a fluke, it cast a not-so-subtle pall over what should have been a straightforward triumph for the start of what should be the highly productive career an emerging black auteur whose works will one day place him in the pantheon of those previously mentioned A-list white directors where great cinematic prestige matters more than the coveted $100 million box office ceiling.
But the white microaggression against black cinematic prestige goes even deeper when we consider historical films made by black filmmakers or those that featured prominent black historical figures where there are no “white savior” characters for white critics and white audiences to avail themselves of any guilt they might feel for watching cinematic representations of racist systemic and structural institutions that they benefit from by default. Recall that white director of the LBJ library, Mark Updegrove and critic Joseph A. Califano Jr., attacked Ava DuVernay’s historical film, Selma for giving what they considered an inaccurate cinematic portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. While historical films made by whites have consistently underplayed, deliberately erased or misrepresented the involvement of Blacks and minorities from their cinematic representations of the past and have still won awards and been canonized by academics and scholars, DuVernay’s great flaw was not giving equal, if not more significant, dramatic attention to a white male character as a active agent of history. Instead, she made the deliberate artistic choice to concentrate on black characters as the active agents of their own history. The controversy against DuVernay’s film proves the double standard that white people don’t like being erased from history or reduced in dramatic importance from representations of history, but white filmmakers have no guilt or afterthoughts when they erase or reduce the dramatic importance of black people and other minorities from historical representations.
Going back further in time, the controversy caused by the alleged miss-representation of the facts of the life of boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter in Norman Jewison’s film The Hurricane (1999) literally cost Denzel Washington the best actor award at the 2000 Academy Award Ceremony. Critics of the film found numerous historical inaccuracies between the cinematic representation and the actual events and facts of the real Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter’s life. Whereas it is common knowledge and practice that no historical film can ever by 100 percent accurate, the historical inaccuracies found within Jewison’s film seem to be predicated upon an exact representation of black criminality and white ethnic superiority. Multiple critics contested the fictional distortions of Rubin Carter’s real criminal and military records vis-à-vis police reports and court documentation- all the while knowing that no historical/biographical film made in the history of cinema could ever survive such historical scrutiny. Moreover, the film producers were sued for libel by former middleweight World Champion Joey Giardello, who it was alleged was, “portrayed as an incompetent fighter,” by the retired world champion. The case was eventually settled out of court, but it also reveals how important the maintenance of ethnic superiority over blacks in cinematic representation is even though every historical/biographical film plays fast and loose with the actual facts in the interest of dramatic license. Why was Jewison’s film treated differently than say, the factual inaccuracies (including the erasure of homosexuality) in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) which told a no less fictional and inaccurate account of the life of economics professor, John Nash, in a film released just two years after The Hurricane? In fact, even with the numerous historical inaccuracies in A Beautiful Mind, the film went on to win four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The controversies surrounding the historical inaccuracies that negatively affected The Hurricane during awards season but seemed to have had little effect upon A Beautiful reveal to us how white microaggressions against black film have a prohibitive effect on both the critical assessment of black film and the ability of black films and black filmmakers to receive the prestige they deserve.
I have gone through the effort of documenting the multiple layers of white microaggression against black film to convince as many as I can that although the short-term box office numbers for films have significance in the popular collective imagination (high box office numbers= a high-quality film), the real battle of race, representation and profit takes place in the political arena of cinematic prestige: Who gets awards and why?
Awards matter because they increase the long-term profitability of a film, the cultural profile of a film, and act as a form of insurance for the creative security of the filmmakers who win such awards to make more films. While it is encouraging that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has made important steps in changing the race, age, and gender demographics of Academy voters for the Oscars, the Golden Globes controversy concerning the categorization of the horror film Get Out as a comedy reveals the depth of the multi-faceted and extended pettiness of white microaggression against black film. Although the film ultimately lost in this category to the film Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) it has been nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) which is also held in esteem as a harbinger of Oscar nominations and awards. But, so long as the American Global Entertainment Industry remains steadfastly white-controlled, the deeply entrenched fears of white fragility (i.e., the fear of not being perceived as culturally superior to all other races) will continue to express itself as white microaggression that impedes the fair and meritorious recognition of black cinematic achievements. Last year, it was the attempted tarnishing of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight award for Best Picture at the Oscars, this year it is the Golden Globes miscategorization of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which begs the question of why should we be silent in the face of these microaggressions simply because these institutions are white controlled? No, we should not be silent and we should not solely rely on our own black awards to bestow prestige upon our own works because such awards (although well deserved and significant within our race) do not have the effect of ensuring the long-term profitability of the celebrated films. No, I am not besmirching the integrity or the merit of black awards for black films, what I am besmirching is the whiteness of major award shows and film festivals that disenfranchise black filmmakers and their films from the capital of cultural prestige that both ensures the creative security of the filmmakers and the long-term profitability of their films.
In short, instead of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating Meryl Streep for acting awards which no longer have any significance in advancing her already vaulted status as an acting icon or nominating white films whose historical depictions of war deliberately exclude the valorous contributions of non-White soldiers (i.e. Dunkirk) we have to be vocal and active not only in changing the demographics of the nominators, but we must also make sure that ‘liberal’ white people know that they are participating in the disenfranchisement of black film and filmmakers when they engage in this microaggressions against black film.
In closing, I’d like to state unequivocally and with great impartiality that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was the Best Picture of 2017 and that Jordan Peele was the Best Director of 2017 who brought in a challenging horror film with distinctive stylistic flair and daring that made a White America who mostly voted for the bigoted and idiotic Donald Trump as President, as well as a disinterested and passive Black America whose votes were nullified by an electoral college, sit up and take notice of their deeply entrenched racial fears and proclivities. That Get Out was a box office success domestically and abroad is all the more reason to respect and acknowledge this achievement as a breakthrough work that simultaneously disproves the lie that black films don’t sell well overseas and that black films only have a limited ‘niche’ domestic appeal.
What Get Out truly represents is the fact that we ain’t ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ anymore, but instead black film and filmmakers are driving to the bank and demanding the prestige that was once reserved for white film and filmmakers and thus the white-controlled global American entertainment complex needs to ‘Do The Right Thing’ and racially diversify for the advancement of the business and the art.
- Page 80-81, in “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now,” by Touré; New York: Free Press 2011.