I’ve spent the past few days imagining what I’d like to see happen at next month’s Academy Awards. Despite some speculation that he’d bow out of hosting duties, Chris Rock would open the show with a clever, biting monologue. Though everyone would expect it to, his opening shtick wouldn’t mention the elephant in the room. The show would then begin with white presenters handing out awards to white winners, and for about an hour, business would be conducted as usual.
Because these days hosts tend to disappear from the stage at longer intervals after the first third of an awards show, the audience and viewers would almost forget that Rock was there — and because a few black auteurs would be noticeably missing (Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike and Tonya Lee, maybe Don Cheadle) — everyone would assume that a full-on boycott was indeed underway, with black actors and filmmakers absenting themselves on their own terms.
Then, Rock would return to the stage, slyly grinning. He’d launch into something that seemed like a bit, addressing someone in the audience. It would be someone who had skipped the red carpet, someone no one assumed would show up. Willow Smith, maybe. Before anyone realized it, however, Rock’s bit would give way to an all-out, pop-up protest. Banners with hashtags such as April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite or the as-yet-imaginary #BlackActorsMatter would unfurl from the balcony, hanging over the heads of hundreds of white faces. A chorus of black voices would start to chant: “Which side are you on, friends? Which side are you on?”
It’s a stretch, sure. But I’d rather envision that than the already-white Oscars turning even whiter in the absence of black presenters and performers. I’d rather Rock be joined by peers of color in the Dolby Theatre that night than be left to deliver a spate of diversity jokes to a predominantly white crowd that has heard them all before — most recently just last year, from host Neil Patrick Harris.
And on a more self-serving note, I’d like my continued interest in the Oscars telecast to be validated somehow; I don’t want to feel so torn about whether I’ll watch, at a time when so many of my peers believe a boycott is a no-brainer — especially after the second-year resurgence of #OscarsSoWhite; Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook call to action; Spike Lee’s Instagram post declaring his planned absence from the awards; Don Cheadle’s Twitter joke about parking cars at the Oscars and other public statements from Idris Elba, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.
Of course, I stand with black Hollywood — and I have for years. None of us are new to the conversation of exclusion, and most of us don’t raise our points only during awards season. This isn’t just an awards problem. It’s a money and opportunity problem. Black films — or films in which the stars are black — aren’t funded or promoted as frequently or generously as films with predominantly white casts.
Three years ago, the New York Times noted an increase in the production of black films. A whopping 10 were receiving theatrical release that year. Compare that with the hundreds of white films that were released in 2013 (and every year). There’s a tremendous burden on those 13 films to be “Oscar caliber” — and that year, several were, including “Fruitvale Station” and “Mother of George.” But just one, “12 Years a Slave,” was feted.
Reginald Hudlin, the fourth black producer to ever be attached to a film nominated for Best Picture (“Django Unchained”), expressed his disappointment in the Hollywood Reporter in both 2014 and 2015. In the latter piece, which he penned himself, he notes that “articles decrying the lack of black presence at the Oscars is an annual event” and points to the NAACP Image Awards, which he produces, as a continuing counterbalance: “You’d think this show wouldn’t be needed by now, but that’s clearly not the case.”
It’s true. I watch the Image Awards each year, and the absence of mainstream recognition often comes up both in hosts’ monologues and in acceptance speeches. The Image Awards should simply be a night of celebrating talent — like any other awards ceremony held during this season. Instead they’re conciliatory and on the defensive. “People are up in arms because they feel the other awards shows have snubbed us,” last year’s host Anthony Anderson noted in his opening monologue. “So what? We’ve got our own show. Right?”
In the past, I’ve had no problem watching both the Oscars and the Image Awards. I’ve been in the Anderson camp. “So what? We’ve got our own show.” I watched one for superficial entertainment — gowns, off-the-cuff acceptance speeches, eye-rolling caught on camera — and the other to feel celebrated and validated as a black consumer of film and creator of art. But if I watch the Oscars this year, I’ll feel like a scab crossing the black viewership’s picket lines.