Hollywood and Diversity: Why This Year’s Oscars Matter

On February 26, Hollywood “movers and shakers” will assemble in Los Angeles for the biggest night of the year—the Academy Awards. Last year, for the second year in a row, all twenty nominees in the acting categories were white, prompting the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. This year’s nominations, however, are considerably more diverse with a record six black actors and two black documentarians—Ava Duvernay for 13th and Raoul Peck for I Am Not Your Negroreceiving nominations. Perhaps most significantly, Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, is the first black filmmaker to earn nominations for both direction and writing while also having his film nominated for Best Picture–the industry’s highest honor.

It appears, therefore, that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has sparked some much-needed changes in Hollywood. Moreover, Hollywood actors have, of late, shown considerable enthusiasm toward supporting diversity and inclusion in a space that has not always been welcoming to artists of color.

Yet, the results of the Best Picture category will send a far more forceful message about Hollywood’s commitment, or lack thereof, to racial justice. All indications point to a two-film race for the night’s final award, each representing opposite sides of Hollywood’s diversity debate. On one end is La La Land, a nearly all-white Classical Hollywood musical brimming with nostalgia. On the other is Moonlight, a film about a young black boy coming of age and coming to grips with his sexuality.

La La Land overwhelms its audience with references to Hollywood classics like Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, An American in Paris, and Funny Face. La La Land, like the films it references, “cheer[s] us up,” as one reviewer put it. The film, in that sense, is not unlike the 80s-cover band featured in the pool party scene of the movie, indulging its audience with selections from a bygone eras greatest hits. La La Land plays all the tropes of Classical Hollywood musicals—singing, dancing, stardom, love, heartbreak, and unapologetic white heteronormativity. La La Land shows contemporary audiences what nearly a century ago earned Hollywood the nickname “The Dream Factory.”

Scene from La La Land

Moonlight, on the other hand, is a film that explores the life of a young black boy living in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami wrestling with his sexuality. Adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film challenges Hollywood notions of which identities and whose lives are worthy of the silver screen.

Moonlight’s strengths abound. The virtual absence of white people, for example, enables the value of the black characters’ lives to stand on their own, rather than be co-opted by colorblind white heroism (as Hollywood dramas about black struggle almost always do). Yet, Moonlight is far more than just a movie about black people that does not rely on heroic white saviors; it’s a work of heartbreaking beauty that engages a long lineage of black independent filmmakers including Julie Dash and Charles Burnett, Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien.

Moonlight is what scholar Robin D.G. Kelley might call a “freedom dream,” the ethos at the center of “the black radical imagination,” which, as he once explained,

refer[s] to the ways in which Black Leftists, some nationalists, feminists, surrealists, etc., envisioned collectively, in struggle, what a revolutionary future might look like and how we might bring this new world into being.

Moonlight is a rare work of art that dreams so boldly. By placing a narrative of black queerness at the center of the frame, Jenkins’ sophisticated film imparts value in lives so thoroughly dehumanized in our society, thereby opening up space to dream of their liberation. Awarding Moonlight Best Picture would therefore add substance to the recent surge of support for diversity in Hollywood.

One is left wondering, however, whether an Academy Award is, or should be, a universally desired recognition for all filmmakers. As writer and director Miranda July notes, “the Oscars could be seen as a major artistic fail—that being beloved by the really homogeneous, conservative group that votes on them would be bad.” Yet, while Oscars are not in any way an indicator of the “best,” or most aesthetically innovative, or socially important movies, the results of the ceremony guarantee future work for the  winners. They also signal to producers and distributors, in what is largely a copy-cat industry, the sorts of stories to seek out moving forward.

While the Oscars may not provide a satisfying analog to artistic innovation or aesthetic accomplishment, they are a key force in shaping the future of the industry. A Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight would, at the very least, make it far more likely for similar films to find investors in the future. And in this age of Trump, where issues of diversity and inclusion have been sidelined in public discourse, a win for Moonlight is not only deserved but desperately needed.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Justin Gomer

Justin Gomer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. His research focuses on race and popular culture in the post-civil rights era. Justin's work appears in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, the Washington Post, and Boston Review, among others. He is currently writing a book entitled, Colorblindness, A Life: The Political and Cultural Biography of an Ideology, which offers an interdisciplinary biography of the racial ideology of colorblindness. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorGomer.