Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 February 2016

Oscar Blackout

One of my standing frustrations with the Academy is that Academy members aren't watching enough movies, and one of the reasons we don't see more black nominees is that Academy members aren't watching enough movies directed by, written by, and starring people of color.

But what should they be watching? I asked a couple of friends to help me out, and I thought the three of us might just rant about some badass movies made by and starring black folks. So, I am joined by my friends Adwin Brown and Dr. Leah P. Hunter. He's a film actor in Los Angeles and she's a professor of communication who specializes in diversity in film and television. I gave them free rein to talk about whatever films they felt like ranting about.

So, if you feel like protesting the Oscars' lack of inclusion, or just wanna watch some awesome movies starring and made by black folks, here are some recommendations.

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ADWIN: Dope is a coming-of-age crime comedy-drama that debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was bought for distribution by Open Road Films. Boasting an incredible cast (Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga, A$AP Rocky to name a few) and an even more impressive production team, (produced by Forest Whitaker, executive produced by Pharrell Williams and Sean “Diddy” Combs) Dope is a hilarious and touching story about millennials, made for millennials. As the movie begins, we meet Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore) a black nerd living in crime-infested Los Angeles (intriguing already, I know) who plays in a rock band with his two best friends. The three of them are obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture, which provides a very welcoming throwback vibe to the entire film that any '90s baby would enjoy. Malcolm dreams of going to Harvard, but after trying to impress a pretty girl that lives across the street (played by Zoë Kravitz) and ending up at a party he shouldn’t have been at, Malcolm and his friends are taken on a scary and hilarious journey of drugs and self discovery that could land them all in huge trouble. If I can be frank, there are honestly so many things to love about this movie – it’s beyond fun! And the script seems to really toy with the idea of playfully mocking the earlier ghetto/hood dramas of the '90s (Boyz n the Hood, Baby Boy, etc.) and mixing up the usual stereotypes associated with them. Visually, the movie is bright and vibrant and the story gets you hooked from the beginning—equally hilarious and violent, and an accompanying soundtrack that will have you bobbing your head the entire film.  

LEAH: Dope was ... um, well ... dope! While it was a classic coming-of-age story, the story itself was turned on its ear because of the racially diverse cast and the choice to make the characters outcasts and not really a part of the culture they were coveting. But, really, they were a part of that culture, right? And, that is what makes Dope such a good film because it goes against stereotype to show the universality of hip hop music (primarily early hip hop) and to give a little insight on how the genre was so identifiable to people who in no way lived the life. Because of all of this, I believe that Rick Famuyiwa should have gotten acknowledged in the Best Director category. Dope is a beautifully shot film! And, Famuyiwa does a great job of directing the cast of young actors. What hurts him though is that the story itself often delves into silliness. Part of what makes the film fun (the coke-out dream girl who is filmed going to the bathroom in bushes, for example) also pushes it more in the comedic direction, which typically means Oscar suicide. Despite that, the movie Dope, and Famuyiwa in particular, remain on my top of the year list.

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AARON: I've already talked about how good Beasts of No Nation is, so I won't repeat that here, but you should know how much I love it. Instead I want to highlight a really awesome African film: Timbuktu. Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu was nominated last year for the Foreign Language Oscar. This movie is absolutely gorgeous, and is perfectly shot from start to finish. Timbuktu is also about the way that a kind of religious fundamentalism has started to take over in Sissako's home country of Mauritania. This film, though, approaches the price of religious fundamentalism and the rule of religious law from the perspective of a young girl – but then really it is an entire city – as they cope with these rules that have nothing to do with their lives. It's a powerful, awesome film. It is important to note, too, that this is a film that is not "about" race, but is about religion and about attempting to live with the difficulties of religious rule. It's an exquisite movie.
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LEAH: Can we talk about how that list of writers (there are 5 people!) who are nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Straight outta Compton should not have been nominated?! It’s probably a moot point because Spotlight won and deserved to win. But, it’s laughable that this film about an African-American rap group, directed by an African American (F. Gary Gray) and starring a majority African-American cast would only have the white folks nominated! In my opinion, though, it was not a great screenplay. Great biopics show all sides of the story. Ray not only showed Ray Charles' genius, but also showed his womanizing and debilitating drug addiction. This is where Straight outta Compton falls short. How can this be seen as an authentic telling of their story when there is no acknowledgement of their abusive treatment of women? No acknowledgement of Dee Barnes or Michelle, among others? By only showing the highlights of NWA’s lives, the screenwriters sucked the humanity out of the characters. Only Jason Mitchell (who played Eazy-E) had some meat to his character, and even then he was portrayed as a hero in the end – just disregarded all of the foul things he did earlier. It just felt a little after-school-special at the end.

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ADWIN: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (based on the book with the same title) is another coming-of-age drama/comedy that tells the story of a teenage boy’s newly formed friendship with a girl who is dying from cancer. The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with a standing ovation from the audience and was purchased for distribution by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film is filled with superb performances by the cast, but one of the strongest stand-out performances comes from newcomer, RJ Cyler. In the movie, Cyler plays Earl, the POC best friend to the white lead, Thomas Mann, and although this may sound like familiar territory, I promise you it does not play out like your typical story. In most movies, having a POC best friend is very common – whether it be the "cool" black guy, the "responsible" Asian guy, or the Indian guy with the "funny accent" – these characters are generally one-note and are only necessary to establish backstory and/or maintain the story-line of the (usually) white lead character. However, while viewing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was pleasantly surprised to see how in many situations in the film Cyler’s character seemed to be the voice of reason. Earl could easily be played as another black kid “from the bad part of town”, but Cyler really found a fun and intriguing balance of being extremely wise beyond his years while still maintaining his comically blunt street smarts. And although the movie follows the platonic relationship between the characters of Greg and Rachel, in many instances Earl is the catalyst between them. Earl is the one who jump-starts their friendship by forcing Greg to show Rachel his homemade movie collection, and at the peak of the movie, Earl is the one who is sympathetic to Rachel’s situation and influences Greg to feel the same way. I believe it can be very easy to fall into familiar traps when writing a script and creating characters, and I am glad that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl went against everything I was expecting.

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AARON: Slightly more recent and also released this year is a film by Jonas Carpignano about Italian immigrants called Mediterranea. This film is, frankly, awesome, and follows a pair of brothers who immigrate to Italy in order to make a better life for themselves, to find work and make money that they can send back home. What they find in Italy is terrible living conditions, terrible working conditions, and the racism of Italian citizens. They find themselves embroiled in violent skirmishes that are protesting the way that police corruption has made the lives of the people in their immigrant community absolutely impossible. It's a powerful story with an extraordinary central performance from Ghanaian actor Koudous Seihon. This film was on many, many critics' top ten lists, which is why I watched it, and it is really revealing as to the immigration crisis that exists in European nations (and not just the U.S.). I can't recommend this movie enough.

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LEAH: I want to say, too, that I am shocked that Creed would get only one nomination and it would be for Sylvester Stallone. Creed was a beautiful film! It was luscious and I cannot believe that Ryan Coogler was not nominated. Second, Coogler’s body of work to be so young in the business is extraordinary! (Fruitvale Station was robbed the year it came out.) That he managed to direct a tentpole film like Creed, still part of the Rocky series, and managed to not only make it big and violent (fight scenes) while at the same time offer the audience very tender moments (virtually every moment with Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson) speaks to his abilities as a director. At the very least, Coogler should have gotten a nomination for Best Director. And, the fact that he collaborated on the screenplay (along with Aaron Covington) as well makes me even more convinced of this.

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This list is far from over. These are the films my friends wanted to call attention to, but there is also Z for Zachariah, a cool exploration of dystopia and race in a world where (apparently) there are only two people left. And there is Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, an updated version of Euripides' Lysistrata. And Girlhood, Céline Sciamma's film about an African-French teenager living in a Paris suberb, who joins a girl gang. The film stars Karidja Touré and has gotten superb reviews across the board.

In any case, Adwin, Leah and I would like to encourage you to support films made by and starring people of color. There are some awesome films out there made by black filmmakers and other filmmakers of color. The only way we can diversify the end-of-the-year awards is by calling attention to – and actually going to see – more films made by and starring people of color. Happy movie-watching!