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Blackprint Roundtable: Oscars So Black?



The 89th Academy Awards are on Sunday, and all eyes will be on the Best Picture category. While many praise the academy for nominating films starring and/or made by creatives of color, crowd favorites like "Hidden Figures," "Fences" or "Moonlight" may not stand a chance against "La La Land,' the award season's golden child. The Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical received 14 nominations, "Moonlight" received eight, while "Fences" and "Hidden Figures" have received four and three nominations, respectively.

The Blackprint e-board recently chatted about the top prize of Hollywood's biggest night and the problem with diversity initiatives. 
Did you see any of the films nominated for this year's Best Picture category? (The following films were nominated for the top prize: "La La Land," "Arrival," "Lion," "Hell or High Water," "Hacksaw Ridge," "Manchester by the Sea," "Fences," "Hidden Figures" and "Moonlight.")
Jenna Caldwell, Engagement Editor: I saw "Fences," and I only saw a part of "Moonlight," unfortunately.
Lauren Lumpkin, News Editor: I only saw the black ones, honestly. I saw "Fences," "Hidden Figures" and "Moonlight." I thought they were all amazing movies.
Taryn Daniels, co-Editor-in-Chief: I saw "Hidden Figures," I saw part of "Moonlight" and [laughs] I saw "La La Land." But I didn't pay for it, so it's fine.
Elisha Brown, co-Editor-in-Chief: I saw "Fences," "Moonlight" and "Hell or High Water," surprisingly.
Which was your favorite? Why?
Lauren: I really liked "Moonlight" the best. I feel like it just told a story that [we never hear]. Being gay and being a black man are two identities that a lot of people relate to, and we just ignore their stories, pretending the struggles that they go through just don't exist. Seeing that story told on the big screen was really powerful and I learned a lot from it.
Jenna: For "Moonlight," I got to work a movie screening in Silver Spring a couple months ago, before the movie became as big as it is now. A lot of people came to see it, not knowing what the movie was about. There was a lot of older black people and they had to fill out surveys at the end. Many of the responses were like "this movie goes against God." It showed me that we still have a lot of homophobia in the black community, and this movie is a good way of addressing it.
Taryn: Speaking of telling stories that don't get told, my favorite was "Hidden Figures." I saw an advanced screening back home with my mom and my brothers. I thought it was cool how even though it was an "adult movie," it still bridged the gap between generations, because everyone had this general lack of knowledge about these women, and how important they were to something so fundamental in our history. It really puts it in perspective just how much black people and our successes are written out of history books.
Elisha: "Moonlight" was probably my favorite out of the three I saw, and "Fences" was a close second. "Fences" was a favorite because of the acting and it really showed the dynamics of a lower middle-class family, the mid-1900s black family. It also shed light on one form of womanhood in the black community, out of the multitudes of them. But "Moonlight," to me, was such an innovative film. It was beautifully shot and the cinematography was amazing.
Do you believe it took the #OscarsSoWhite social media backlash these last two years to create a change? Do you believe without this backlash nominations would have eventually diversified on their own?
Elisha: I don't believe so. I think Hollywood is a follower. They only respond to diversity instead of being proactive about it. For instance last year, the head of the academy, a black woman, announced hundreds of additions of diverse people. So now the academy members are younger, but it still takes a while to diversify that institution as a whole because the majority of academy voters are still white. In terms of the hashtags, it's tough because it takes movies a long time to come out. Next year, the Oscars could be mostly white again. I think while hashtags are great and pressured the industry, we should be focusing on looking at the actual production and distribution companies and who heads those. We should pay attention to which films they are greenlighting as the year goes on.
Taryn: I think the hashtag definitely has some importance, especially last year. Major actors were boycotting the show and saying they wouldn't attend. I felt like even though that happened both years, it had a more lasting impression last year on nonwhite people. But I definitely agree that it has more to do with the movies we are putting out. We have to work harder to continue to put out movies that are telling other stories and narratives, because then they have no choice but to select them. This year, we had the privilege of having so many different projects and not just in the Best Picture category.
Do you believe the nominations received by black actors, actresses and films is a sort of Hollywood affirmative action? Or an overdue well-deserved acknowledgement?
Lauren: I would like to think that these films and actors are getting the acknowledgement they finally deserve, and hope this isn't a situation where they are including these diverse films only because of the #OscarsSoWhite pressure. It's trendy right now to be diverse and to have black people represented in different minority groups, but I hope that this is a lasting thing and next year isn't back to all white nominees just because we aren't talking about race anymore.
Taryn: Yeah, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it's affirmative action. When it got it's nomination, I think "Hidden Figures" was the number two film in the country, and since then it's grossed over $100 million and is the highest-grossing film in the Best Picture category. I think it's just well-deserved acknowledgement that's all happening at the same time.  
As black artists, should we continue to seek validation from white-dominated awards shows? Or should we strictly watch the NAACP Image Awards, BET Awards and other ceremonies that honor black talent? 
Lauren: I think it's still good to be validated by the Oscars because it's so culturally prominent and has such a long history. They are both equally important. We see the BET Awards and make jokes, and I am not sure how many people watch the NAACP Image Awards, but I feel like we don't put as much importance on them as we should.
Taryn: It's all about the recognition, and it's something actors work for their entire lives. Shows like the BET Awards and NAACP Image Awards were created to gives us a space, so we have to [continue to] give them equal importance. I mean, the NAACP Awards aren't really a huge thing on TV, but a lot of high profile black actors and actresses attend them regardless of viewership. I think we are definitely pushing for visibility and making it something people pay attention to.
Jenna: I don't think we should strictly attend the NAACP Image Awards and BET Awards, because it's almost as if we would be taking a step backwards. We would be further segregating ourselves ,and then what would all this work be for? The artists don't make art just for one person or community, but for everyone. This way everyone gets to enjoy it together.
The BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) has announced it's going to ban films lacking diversity in 2019. Do you agree with this decision and believe the academy should follow in its footsteps? Why or why not?
Jenna: I definitely don't believe the academy should follow in their footsteps, and I don't necessarily agree with the movement. Making films is an art, and [this movement] is putting that art into a box, saying "you have to follow this certain procedure." For example, if I'm making a film about the Stone Age…
Lauren: Or 14th century England.
Jenna: Yeah or 14th century England, I'm not going to throw in Lucy Liu or someone, because they weren't there! You can't just add random diversity to the film just to [say it's diverse]. It has to makes sense and it still has to be an art form.
Lauren: It's a cool idea, but then [again], what is "diversity?" Is it a random Latino man in a movie just because you want to say the movie is diverse? I think that defeats the purpose.
Taryn: And what does "lacking" mean? Does that mean if I have six Latino actors in the background, then my movie has diversity? Does it have to be a speaking role? I've got ten lines, so now is it diverse? It's all subjective.
Jenna: Who judges the "diversity?" If you have ten Latino guys, does one of them have to be El Salvadorian? Who judges what "diverse" is at that point? 

Taryn: I don't know if that's something that can happen by 2019 [either].
Elisha: It's kind of an empty gesture, and gives into the whole idea of spectacle. You can have a British "The Breakfast Club," and have British people like Dev Patel, Riz Ahmed and Naomi Harris, she's a little older, but she can play the principal. It could just be a flat re-telling of a typical white, eighties story. But is that necessarily good, innovative or new?
Concluding thoughts?
Jenna: I think this just proves that voicing [your concerns] has real results.
Elisha: "La La Land" is gonna win. I'm so pissed.
Jenna: "La La Land" is gonna win.
Taryn: I watched "La La Land" because I don't like making strong arguments without knowing both sides. So I watched it to understand and to be honest, I'm not ashamed, I thought it was cute. There's definitely a time and place for romantic movies, but it wasn't Oscar-worthy. It wasn't 14 Oscar nominations worthy. Ryan Gosling can do no wrong, but I don't like Emma Stone and I didn't really think she could sing.
Elisha: Yikes.
Taryn: I feel like the popularity of it had more to do with the era and what it's about. It's about that Hollywood struggle and a lot of people in L.A. relate to that, which is where all of these voting committees are. So they liked that the "young actor story" was being told on the main stage, even though it always is. And she didn't even struggle for that long. I've seen grungier, sadder, more moving stories of not having your dream be fulfilled and I don't think that should be the staple of 2016 in film just because it's an all white cast.

Jenna: That's me, every few years with the Oscars. Like "Birdman," I really didn't understand that [one]. Like not at all.

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