Describing the moment when she started the viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, April Reign says was inspired by Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, seeing in the Oscar nominations of 2015 the equivalent of “no brothers and sisters up on the wall in Sal’s Pizzeria.” Speaking to me during an interview for the podcast Below The Fold, April describes how frustration quickly turned to humor when she took to twitter with “#OscarsSoWhite they want to touch my hair.” “It started out as a joke,” April told me. “Then the conversation turned into something much more serious expanding into a discussion about the lack of representation in film.”
Now, with Chris Rock hosting the live broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, the conversation will certainly come back to humor. Not that April will be watching.
April does not call her action a boycott, but she will be involved in what she calls counter-programing, using her twitter account (named top 15 #Black Twitter accounts by The National Journal) to live tweet the coming of age film The Wood during the broadcast Sunday evening.
Ironically, it is the success of April’s viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign that makes this year’s live televised show, with Chris Rock serving as the MC for an Academy Award Ceremony in which a grand total of zero black actors were nominated in the individual acting award categories, must see television. “There is no one better (than Chris Rock) to be hosting the awards this year,” says April. “I fully expect him to bring it, and I (also) think the Academy does.”
The coming Chris Rock moment – a black berry filled with sweet juice- is ripe with potential.
With the reverberations of Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show wherein she honored the Black Panthers and Malcolm X still sending ripples of energy around the world, followed by Kendrick Lamar’s absolutely stunning #BlackLivesMatter performance at the Grammy’s that almost literally burned down the house in an evening that also saw Hamilton, a Broadway musical that tells the story of the American revolution by consciously recasting the founding fathers as people of color – mostly African American men- walk away with some hardware adds to the ground swell of waves crisscrossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring. Chris Rock will step to the mic on Sunday night to host the Oscars at a cultural and historical moment with the opportunity to sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Ok, perhaps I’m overstating things a bit, but you get the point.
So will Chris Rock take Beyoncé’s lead and step into formation? Rock is a comedian with a unique ability to shape historical moments from a perspective that both disquieting and unimpeachable:
“When you see footage of the ‘60’s and see black people getting sprayed down and hosed down and dogs getting sicked on us and little girls getting burnt up in churches… that’s just white people being nice. Nicer than they was in the 50’s and 40’s and 30s.” – Chris Rock
As Kendi talks of the Academy’s history of promoting racist narratives and summarizes the Planet of the Apes in the following way:
“Black people had long been likened to apes in racist mythology. And so, it is hardly a stretch to say the film’s apes—who enslave the White astronauts after their long space journey—signify Black people in this movie. After one White astronaut escapes, he comes upon a rusted Statue of Liberty, and suddenly realizes he’s back on earth. After years of domestic and foreign antiracist rebellions, racist Americans actually feared a violent Black revolution could be on the horizon in early 1968—fears reflected in “Planet of the Apes.” To racist Whites, there could only be White supremacists or Black supremacists in power. An equitable society is beyond the racist imagination.”
While some can argue that arc of the moral universe has been bending towards justice since 1968, #BlackLivesMatter forces us to face the fact that it is bending slowly. As historical moments go – we are still in the thick of this one, but things might trending in a positive direction.
The Pew research center has been tracking Americans views on race relations since 1986, the year Martin Luther King day was first observed as a national holiday. A summary of the center’s most recent findings, released in January of this year, notes that 6 in 10 Americans thinks the country needs to continue making changes to assure that blacks have equal rights with whites, a substantial increase over the previous year, and a growing share think that racism is a big problem in our society. Furthermore a majority of Americans now give Police a poor grade when it comes to treating people of color equally. The summary of findings also notes that 57% of people supported the removal of the Confederate flag form State grounds in South Carolina.
For those of us, white like me, it sure is easy to get excited about progress while still reaping the rewards – sought or unsought – of white privilege in a systemically racist society. However, are we really ready to call it progress when more than 4 in 10 people think that the flag representing slavery should remain up on state grounds paid for by the taxes of the ancestors of slaves?
If art is a mirror held up to nature, then Hollywood’s mirror is regressive and myopic.
In my embrace of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, I’ll implore Hollywood to take Bertolt Brecht’s words to heart when he said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”