The burdens and expectations of this year’s critically acclaimed, diversity-forward films – The Globe and Mail
2017/01/07 Leave a comment
Good read on the industry’s ongoing diversity challenge and how this year’s films are strong award contenders (I saw Moonlight at TIFF and well worth seeing):
You know Moonlight even if you haven’t stepped inside a movie theatre in months. Ever since Barry Jenkins’s intimate drama about one black man’s coming of age premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, it has dominated the cultural conversation. Walk a block in any major city and you’ll encounter giant bus ads touting its brilliance. Read any film critic’s year-end Top 10 list and you’ll find it near the top (Metacritic has the film topping 52 lists). Ask any industry insider and they will tell you Moonlight is the film to beat at this year’s Academy Awards.
Which is all quite a radical shift from this time last year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 2016 Oscars, and exactly zero non-white performers were nominated in the acting categories. For the second year in a row. In an instant, the social-media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became easy shorthand for the industry, with the Oscars themselves cast as, in Chris Rock’s words, “the White People’s Choice Awards.”
But Moonlight, and a handful of other films, might represent a long-overdue turnaround. In the last quarter of 2016 – what is traditionally known as awards season, when studios release their prestige pictures – there has been a notable surge of heavily marketed, critically acclaimed, diversity-forward films dominating the marketplace: Moonlight, certainly, but also the historical drama Hidden Figures; the interracial drama Loving; the Barack Obama biopic Barry; two monumental documentaries from Ava DuVernay (13th) and Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro); the tearjerker Lion starring Dev Patel; and the powerful Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
All promise to be strong presences at this year’s Academy Awards – and all offer the hope of a sea change in the industry, an acknowledgment that Hollywood is finally waking up to the need for diverse voices, both in front of and behind the camera.
Or is it the mere illusion of a sea change?
The industry has been down this road before, after all. In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry became the first black performers to win both top acting Oscars in the same year (for, respectively, Training Day and Monster’s Ball). Five years later, seven performers of colour dominated the 2006 Academy Awards’ acting categories: Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza and eventual winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson. But instead of those moments leading to permanent change, the industry fell back on whatever promises those recognitions may have implied.
“When Denzel and Berry won, the industry said, ‘Well, that’ll do for the next 20 years! Good job, everyone, pack it up!’” jokes Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and an expert on diversity in the film business. It’s a good line, but there are real tears mixed with the humour. While Hollywood considers itself a bastion of liberal values and progressive politics, it has consistently proven loath to highlight diverse performers and filmmakers, and in recent years has even lost what little progress had been made. (Last February, Hunt released a study that found that film jobs still go to “overwhelmingly white male performers and filmmakers,” with minorities losing ground in acting, writing, directing and producing jobs since his previous study came out in 2015.)
Is Moonlight, then, and its fellow crop of Oscar favourites – each worthy in their own way, each carrying unfair burdens and expectations – part of a deliberate reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, or a simple matter of good timing bereft of any meaningful industry change?
“In the case of Loving, it certainly isn’t a reaction – the movie’s been in the works for four years, and that’s just the kind of gestation period it takes for features,” says Peter Saraf, one of the drama’s producers. “But we are seeing more films that are starting to engage on issues that have been ignored for a while.”
Cameron Bailey, artistic director for the Toronto International Film Festival, agrees, though adds that there’s another factor to consider. “What we’re seeing is a reaction to the establishment that elevates movies to the public consciousness. The companies that sell and buy movies, the exhibitors, the critics – all those areas are probably paying more attention and are more conscious of trying to address diversity than a year or two ago,” says Bailey, whose festival this past fall hosted premieres of Moonlight, Loving, I Am Not Your Negro and Lion, as well as a sneak peek of Hidden Figures. “It all makes it impossible to ignore the great work coming from African-American or Asian American or Latin American artists.”
This cultural elevation, Bailey says, can be framed as an evolving democratization of just how movies get valued. “It used to be critics telling audiences what was great and what they had to see. And it still is, but it’s also Twitter and Facebook now, and Black Twitter has also been incredibly vocal and increasingly influential,” he says, referring to the loosely defined network of social-media users focused on interests to the black community, from politics to the arts. “Look at the reaction on Black Twitter to, say, the new Black Panther movie being developed by Disney. Every time there’s a casting announcement, Twitter freaks out! That’s great, but what it tells you is that people who make movies and green-light them are finally paying attention to social media – and if they want to make money, they follow that interest.”
“We talk about the industry as if it’s a monolith, and of course, at the end of the day, it isn’t – all those people sitting in those rooms making decisions are ultimately paying lip service to the notion that they want to get their product to an audience,” says Nina Shaw, a lawyer and industry power player who represents some of the top black artists working in Hollywood today, including DuVernay and musician John Legend. “So when you see something you like, you tweet about it, and use all your social-media outlets to encourage other people to do the same. And I’m telling you, the folks on this side of town are looking at those things and using them as indicators as to what audiences want to see.”