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Why I’m not excited about a few black Oscar nominations

It’ll take more than one year of diverse nominations to fix a problem like #OscarsSoWhite

This weekend you’re going to see a lot of Oscars-related buzz. There’ll be speculation that Jordan Peele might take home the gong for Best Director for Get Out; Denzel Washington might get awarded for being Denzel Washington, and Aunty Mary (J. Blige) might take a little gold man home for her amazing acting debut in Mudbound.

Despite my love for all of the above, I find it incredibly hard to care about the Academy Awards, and most mainstream award shows. This doesn’t mean to say I’m not supremely happy that black narratives are getting more attention, finally. There’s been a wide range of films with stellar casts in the last couple of years that have reached beyond the black community. Last year’s Moonlight moment will go down in history as the most confusing yet joyous television moments ever.

Moonlight’s win along with pivotal moments that followed like Girls Trip, and Black Panther (both of which smashed through Box Office records) mark a notable shift worthy of celebration, as traditionally, studios assumed that you couldn’t market films with black leads or predominantly black casts as mainstream. As such, I grew up surrounded by VHS tapes and DVDs of brilliant “black movies” like Soul Food, Set it Off, Love and Basketball – all-time classics to me, that my white friends had barely even heard of.

When studios acknowledge that these films have crossover appeal, they get worldwide cinema releases and adequate marketing. So don’t get me wrong: I’m happy that this new wave of cinema is taking off. But I take issue with the disproportionate importance that's placed on getting white approval.

Daniel Kaluuya is the first black Brit under 30 to be nominated for Best Actor. Understandably, there has been an outpouring of congratulatory tweets online from fans and colleagues. When I spoke to him at the Black Panther premiere recently, I asked him whether he thought his nomination was a signal of progress in the Oscars, or a sign they were behind. “ I'm just happy for Jordan and this film that we're getting recognised, it's always nice to be recognised. I think the new influx of members means that they're more open minded,” he said. “But the expression comes before the acceptance. We just made the film that we wanted to make.”

For some, there hasn’t been enough focus on the enormity of the nomination and its legacy for black British actors. One Twitter user wrote: “I am going to rant this morning, typical British media are part and parcel one of the reason when BLACK BRITISH CREATIVES go to Hollywood they don’t come (back). They don’t get celebrated here!” Even though I understand the frustration of Bola Agbaje, whose entire Twitter thread sheds light on his impressive career so far, UK Twitter should shout about Kaluuya's achievements regardless of an Oscar nomination.

I think there’s a severe case of collective amnesia at play here. Firstly, the transatlantic jump that many black British actors make is probably more to do with a frustrating lack of variety of the types of black people on UK screens – they’re more likely to appear in crime movies than any other genre, for example. Research by the British Film Institute showed that in the last 10 years, only 13 per cent of films had a black actor in a leading role, and six in 10 films had no named black characters at all. And the US is not really that much better – one or two slightly more diverse years doesn’t excuse the fact that black actors don’t get the recognition they deserve. Have we already forgotten #OscarsSoWhite? This is why the US has a number of majority-black awards shows, for example, the BET awards and American Black Film Festival. For decades, black films were invisible to the Academy.

“One or two slightly more diverse years doesn’t excuse the fact that black actors don’t get the recognition they deserve. Have we already forgotten #OscarsSoWhite?”

There’s a tiny alumnus of black Oscar winners, and a lot of them have spoken before about the so-called “Oscar curse” for ethnic minorities. Right now Mo’Nique is leading a campaign against Netflix, as she revealed they offered her a measly $500,000 for a comedy special compared to Amy Schumer’s reported fee of $13million. Both are respected in comedy circles (albeit one white, and one black), but since she won an Oscar for her spine-chilling performance in Precious, Mo’Nique has struggled to get work and adequate pay.

Similarly, Octavia Spencer, who is the first woman to follow an Oscar win with nominations in two consecutive years, still relies on the clout of her white peers in order to get the pay she deserves. At Sundance Film Festival, an emotional Spencer revealed that she received five times her salary when fellow Academy Award winner, Jessica Chastain, tied their deals together so they would earn the same. Again, this illustrates how the industry gives way to the weight of white approval and influence even after rare black Oscar wins.

Glorifying the Oscars as if they are the gold standard only validates the decades of snobbery and snubbery towards black art and artists. I love Daniel Kaluuya – his continued success brings joy to my heart. But do you expect me to believe that he’s the first young black British male to be worthy of the “highest” accolade in the industry for Get Out? Literally get out. It’s too simple to applaud this, and not acknowledge that this win comes after decades of deficient roles for black men, and also lack of recognition for the few roles that are out there. The same goes for every female cinematographer who was ignored before 2018.

It takes more than small gestures for an institution prove that it’s ready and willing to change. It has to engage with every aspect of diversity – from equal pay to equal clout of art made by people right across the broad spectrum of humanity. If the Oscars are thought of as the golden stamp in the industry, no wonder the industry underpays and undervalues POC, LGBTQ, and feminist art. Perhaps it's time we built our own institutions, and stopped begging to be seen by those that deliberately exclude us.