My Love/Hate Relationship with the Oscars
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been obsessed with Hollywood. For my 12th birthday, I asked my parents to take me to LA so we could do a celebrity van tour. No joke. Our guide probably made up half of what he said but allegedly I got to see the exterior of the homes of Denzel, Elizabeth Taylor and even Oprah in the wide streets of Beverly Hills! Now that I live here, I realize how embarrassing my infatuation was but for whatever reason, the Hollywood bug got me.
Every year I looked forward to watching the Oscars and remember feeling some type o’ way. I loved the red carpet, the attractive people and really did do my best to see the nominated films. It was an event that felt grand and glamourous. I clearly remember when Halle Berry won and how much she cried yet also remember having a level of confusion as to how there hadn’t been any other African American women who had won Best Actress before her. I mean, it was the Millennium. 2002 to be exact. And guess what, she remains the only African American woman to have won in that category to this day (with only 10 others nominated in Oscar history).
In the last couple of years, we’ve experienced #OscarsSoWhite thanks to the influence of social media and don’t forget the appalling Best Picture debacle of announcing La La Land as the winner instead of Moonlight. I still to this day have a hard time believing that to be an “honest mistake” versus a brilliant PR stunt.
With greater attention being brought to light on the lack of diversity amongst nominees, I’ve grown less impressed by the award in general. I have an acting teacher that I adore because of his love for actors and he often talks of “the greats” of recent film history like Brando, Pacino, Hoffman, Penn and De Niro. I am in no way discrediting their art or talent but it makes complete sense why they would be placed on the awards platform and revered. The characters and films they have done were written, in most part by white men and were financially backed by studios of executives (also white men) who put a lot of money into campaigning. Now I’m not meaning to bash on white men, I’m clearly stating how this is an equation that has been fit for Oscar success. (Plus the influence of Harvey Weinstein in the last decade of Oscar history, but I’m not even gonna go there.)
When it comes to actresses, I think this is an even more complicated conversation as to who is groomed for the Oscars. Roles that get nominated are often the gritty, dark characters who are complex and interesting. Or it’s taking on a great historical figure and doing the truth justice. For women of color however, how often are we even viewed for those roles? Or, how often are the films starring WOC seen by the “elite” Hollywood eye? I think the lack of WOC actresses who have been nominated comes from the root of being historically categorized in roles of the best friend, the mistress, the help, the slave, or the exotic muse whose personality doesn’t matter. Oh let me not forget the crackhead, although this isn’t as Oscar worthy coming from a black woman vs a white woman, right?
When I first moved to LA, I was a dancer and told myself I wouldn’t pursue acting because I didn’t believe there would be a path for me to play interesting roles. I remember thinking, what are the chances of me “making it” and getting to do work that I personally would feel challenged by and be proud of? I would say to myself, “I can count all of the mainstream WOC actresses on two hands. That’s it.”
Halle Berry. Penelope Cruz. Salma Hayek. Eva Longoria. Eva Mendes. Zoe Saldana. Jennifer Lopez. Jessica Alba…
Fuck, I need 2 more. (Note: This was in high school so pre-Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o or Octavia Spencer’s widespread fame. Also, Angela Bassett and Michelle Yeoh are both Queens but they felt a higher caliber than my 16-year old radar could handle at the time)
These are women I paid attention to naturally because they were the closest image of myself I saw on screen. But I had a very negative attitude about not wanting to just be the sexy woman who tricks the guy or the splash of diversity à la girlfriend. That seemed boring. (And I also don’t have curves so my chances of playing the bombshell seemed v slim).
However, there has been a shift, even if it’s a quiet one, of more and more women of color being taken seriously in roles that are beyond the exotic other. Why? Because there is a rise in creators, writers and producers who are making interesting characters and stories that are multidimensional. And they are casting women of color, hallelujah! The women I listed above are part of this wave as they have started production companies or even businesses outside the industry that uplift communities (Bese is the shit) and I am grateful to them for taking the roles they could and playing the game for as long and hard as they have to open opportunities for the next generation of actresses.
All of this to say, I no longer view the Oscars as the end all be all in terms of a measurement of success. I see it as a celebration of talent, art and stories that have been positioned to be seen. Some have an easier path towards the Golden Man while others have fought extra hard and earned the recognition. But ultimately, it is not an accurate reflection of ALL the talented artists of today who are doing tremendous work and making a lasting impact on society and new artists on the rise.
So I will be tuning in this Sunday while sipping Prosecco, eager to see the elaborate gowns and beautiful people and will probably cry during 1-2 speeches, yet I will also be reminded that the works of many others are just as grand and important and I’m thankful to those storytellers too.
Watch: Halle Berry’s Iconic Best Actress Win