Once I was up for a promotion at work. It was between me and one other woman in the office. I had been working at the company for only two years, but had done an amazing job, producing tangible results. My competitor had been with the company for many years, was well-liked and performed her job decently. I knew that she was being considered because she was friendlier than me and played the game better. I knew, and most of coworkers admitted that I was much better qualified for the position. Ultimately, the job went to the other woman. I was livid. I went home wondering if I was as qualified as I believed. I made a list of all of my indisputable successes with the company and realized that I was surely as qualified as I thought. My employer’s failure to see or acknowledge my excellence didn’t change that fact.
I thought back to that story when the Oscar nominations were announced Thursday. Just as was the case last year, black actors and directors were notably missing from the nominations. I knew social media would take the Academy to task for this – AGAIN – and I’m honestly quite sick of the dragging. It’s not that I think the nomination process or the entire show isn’t purposely exclusionary. It’s that I’m tired of black people requiring accolades from predominately white institutions and organizations to feel validated in our craft.
Black excellence is not conditioned upon white acknowledgement. Don Cheadle is one my favorite actors. He’s never won an Oscar for acting. I don’t consider him any less talented because of that fact, though. I consider the racist industry that cannot acknowledge his extraordinary talents the losers. Sure, I’d cheer for him if he won any award because I know it’s well-deserved, but I don’t see his stellar work finally being recognized by white people in the industry as paramount to his value or legacy.
Honestly it’s not that we’re always shut out of the Academy Awards. We’re shut out when we take roles that defy their simplistic ideas of who we are. If we examine the roles black people typically win Oscars for, they’re stereotypical representations of who America thinks we are: Hattie McDaniel as a maid, Mo’nique as a sadistically abusive mother, Denzel Washington as a dirty cop, Lupita N’yongo as a slave or Jennifer Hudson as a sassy songstress. They can’t imagine us as anything other than servants, criminals or entertainers.
That’s evidenced by how Ava Duvernay’s Selma, depicting Dr. King as strong, fiery, and angry over the treatment of his people, a direct contradiction to the docile, mild-mannered, peace-loving character white America loves telling us he was, lost to Birdman. A film about the most iconic freedom fighter in history, cheered by critics, lost to a film about a washed-up superhero. What more evidence do we need that those awards aren’t for us?
We need to recognize the mind fuck. As with anything, we’re given a few crumbs to keep us hopeful that things are changing. That we would actually celebrated that it took more than 70 years for a black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress speaks volumes of how indoctrinated we are.
How many times must our best and brightest sit in the audience brimming with excitement, silently praying that this time will be different, only to lose and graciously lie saying, “It’s an honor just to be nominated,” knowing that we’ve played this game and lost over and over? How many times must we say, “She’d better get an Oscar for this,” when a black actress devours a role, only to have her not only not win an Oscar, but not even be nominated? How long will keep hoping that the Academy, which held its first motion picture Awards show more than 85 years ago, when black people were still being lynched regularly and denied (legally) our right to vote, will finally get it right? When an organization is headed by a black woman and the committee still fails to recommend any black people for recognition, there can be no clearer sign of how we’re viewed.
How much more powerful would the objection be if black actors and directors boycotted the Oscars? What would it mean if our favorites opted out of spending thousands of dollars on hair, makeup and clothes only to be interviewed on the red carpet and sit in the audience watching the salute to white mediocrity? If they don’t want us on the stage, they don’t need us in the audience.
Let’s abandon the idea that black people finally being acknowledged for our work is a sign of our progress. There has never been a shortage of black talent. We don’t need to progress to being good enough. When these organizations finally decide to be honest and acknowledge us, that’s progress for them, not us. Whether the weatherman tells us or not, we know it’s raining.
So while I absolutely understand that everyone wants to be acknowledged for their work, I’m also tired of us trying to shame the unshamable. Calling the Oscars out every year for the same thing is like yelling at a dog for barking. We are great. Our work is great. We don’t need their statues and stages to solidify that.