Following my post on black beauty, I received a comment that referenced the number of black nominees for the upcoming Oscars. It then became obvious to me that these black nominees surfaced for this very reason—to occupy a point of reference in contemporary conversations about race. Despite racism bearing a persistent presence in western culture, whites and unconscious persons of color intertwine black nominees as a shallow straw man and irrelevant deflection to eschew racial realities. Thus, in examining the contemporary influx of black bodies garnering acknowledgment in the form of white accolades, it becomes obvious that this acknowledgment occurs out of strategy, not generosity. This strategy is not to celebrate blackness, but to celebrate whiteness through black bodies.
Contemporary society gloats of its abundant and diverse portrayals yet all contemporary portrayals function to validate myths surrounding blackness. Moonlight, for example follows a young black male’s journey from outcast to acceptance, a journey made easier with the help of a local drug dealer. His mother, an abusive drug addict, bears a complicated relationship with her child whom she loves, despite struggling to love herself. The film succeeds in portraying the many demons that hover over black life. However, while Moonlight succeeds in depicting the diverse wounds afforded to black bodies, the film oversimplifies these issues—depicting these wounds as self-inflicted, not systemic.
Fences, an August Wilson masterpiece, illustrates multiple perspectives of black life through its few but resounding characters. Nominee Viola Davis is certainly a phenomenal actress deserving of recognition. Davis’ rise to leading lady however, incorporates portrayals that perpetuate harmful mistruths regarding the black female body.
Black female mistruths harbor a prevalent place in contemporary culture. However, much of what we do and what we say solely becomes noteworthy once detached from our bodies. Namely, caricatured black femininity birthed flamboyant gay behavior, and countless stage personalities of prominent black and white performers. Reality television would not prove exceedingly popular or lucrative if the masses were not indeed fascinated in fictive representations portrayed as fact. Similarly, pre-oscar nomination, Viola Davis functioned to manifest many of the false truths that surround black femininity.
Oscar nominee Viola Davis performed a similar function in her pre-Oscar nominated roles. Namely, in all roles leading up to her portrayal of Rose in Fences, Davis validates many of the false truths that surround black femininity.
Before becoming TGIT’s Annalise Keating, Viola Davis was Antwone Fisher’s deadbeat mother, the embittered D.A. in Law Abiding Citizen, amongst other minor roles. Series How to Get Away with Murder, authored by Peter Nowalk, paved the way for Davis’ Oscar-nominated role Rose (Fences). Thus, Viola’s Hollywood trajectory reveals that she had to embody a white man’s fantasy before personifying a positive role crafted by a black man.
Interestingly, Davis’ acting on How to Get Away with Murder received significantly less recognition, than her hair. Davis made headlines in the series’ debut season for removing her wig and makeup on prime time television. However, Davis does not just remove her wig, she illustrates the black female as “putting on” her beauty. Most recently, Davis generated conversation as she cut out her weave out with razor blade—depicting the ugly black woman as a recurring controlling image on the series. Davis’ scene depicts black female ugliness as masked by inauthentic hair and makeup. As Annalise Keating, Davis’ black female body becomes a vessel for preconceived notions of black femininity authored by a white male. This dynamic paints Davis as a watered down Stepin’ Fetchit. Similarly, Fetchit did not author skits like “Lazy Richard” but acted as a vessel to perpetuate ideas of black laziness. The trajectory of award-winning black portrayal depicts variants of Steppin’ Fetchit, as awards follow black bodies who denigrate the black collective for wealth and fame.
In 2002, Halle Berry won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Drama although she was not the first black actress nominated for this “honor.” In 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black actress to gain a nomination for this award. While Berry proved victorious, both the nomination and award follow hyper sexual roles that portray the black female body as sexually aggressive and immodest. Hattie MacDaniel (Gone With the Wind) and contemporary Octavia Spencer (The Help), earned Oscars for roles that were both supportive in title and function. Namely, both Spencer and McDaniel played maids—depicting the full-figured, sun- kissed black female body as asexual and bound to servitude. Davis, although indeed hyper sexual in her role as Annalise Keating, garners no conversation for her sexuality. Rather she becomes a household name for portraying black female beauty as a rarity. Furthermore, whether regarded as conventionally or unconventionally beautiful, the black female body must portray sexual degradation on their road to white acceptance. While conventionally beautiful black actresses like Halle Berry must bare her naked body to the world to get an award, the unconventional beauty must seemingly prove her ugliness or aesthetic vulnerability to an anticipatory white gaze.
This anticipatory gaze often finds blackness, be it our tragedies or triumphs, entertaining. Thus, while nominated documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, seem to reflect a nuanced perspective, they solely prove entertaining or briefly enlightening to an audience unlikely to make any major changes after seeing the film. In fact, many of those who watched 13th late last year, most likely still voted for Hilary Clinton despite the films brilliant revisit to her psst sins.
I Am Not Your Negro, a brilliant intertwining of creativity and fact, provides perhaps the most challenge to western comfort. But due to its limited accessibility, its pending victory is possibly more discussed that the film itself. Interestingly, the majority of viewers at the screening I saw of I Am Not your Negro were indeed whites. They watched silently as America’s truth manifested visually and orally. The only vocal reactions were from those of the diaspora who felt a “holy ghost” of consciousness and felt the need to shout. A pre-screening of Fences revealed a similar demongraphic. I say this to say, that movies, whether written by blacks or whites, whether starring blacks or whites, exist largely to entertain those of the majority. Thus, awards rendered to blacks do not function as a sense of empowerment or even acknowledgment, but accolades that correspond to how well they appease their tradirional and contemporary “masters.”
Furthermore, I truly wish I could be happy for the number of blacks nominated. I wish I could look past the transparency afforded to these nominees. For black nominees are not awaiting an opportunity to take trophies home, these black nominees await an opportunity to become trophies—trophies that those of the majority hang in their consciousness to prove that they are not racists.
The Academy is of course inevitably racist, functioning exclusively to celebrate whiteness and alternate images that also function to suggest white superiority. At most, these nominations are a talking point to make those of the majority feel content in pseudo-diversity. Thus, in a perfect world, blacks would regard white acceptance with indifference, and save the tears and pride for acknowledgment within the black diaspora.
White acceptance should not be the goal for blacks. Whether it is graduating from an Ivy League school, getting a high-paying job working for whites, winning any form of western award, our greatness proves mutually exclusive to white measures of greatness. This is the case because western world is only equipped to praise that which perpetuates not challenges their fictive ideals. To strive for western acceptance is to employ the white labyrinth of truth as the lens in which you see this world. This lens depicts blacks as animals, whites as angels and the western world as a forgiving land of “diversity.” Thus any black victory be it an Oscar, Pulitzer or a degree from a white university, functions to affords blacks a pseudo exceptionalism implemented to drive a deeper wedge between the blacks and their indigenous origins.