By Vernon A. Williams
If you take nothing else away from this month designed to spotlight achievements of Americans of African descent make it this one thing – Black arts does NOT require the validation of whites for legitimacy.
For example, the recent Grammy Awards selected Billie Eilish as THEIR Best New Artist.
Record of the Year honors went to the same individual for a song called “bad guy” – instead of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, “Hard Place” by H.E.R. or “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo. In THEIR mind, Eilish had the best song and the best album.
It’s not that it was necessarily discrimination, racism or prejudice against Black artists and their songs. It is just a matter of subjectivity or personal preference. Nothing more.
They would rather hear the John Denver version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” than the sultry soul rendition of Isaac Hayes. Carole King singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” may be more audibly palatable than the gutsy Aretha Franklin version.
It is not a tragedy or an American crisis. It is simply a matter of fact. I hate to break the hearts of all of you dreamers of “post-racial” America but, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, there is no such thing.
Recognition may be guided by taste in music. The plot is much more sinister in America’s selection of Blacks for Academy Awards. Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier were the first African American winners in “Gone with the Wind” and “Lillies of the Field.” Not to diminish their talent but the nature of their roles was a harbinger of things to come.
Let’s examine the history and social politic of the Academy Awards.
Denzel Washington captured best lead actor for his portrayal of a rogue cop in “Training Day” when many consider the more militant role of “Malcolm X” his best ever. Whoopi Goldberg won her first Oscar for the portrayal of the non-threatening psychic Ola Mae in the classic, “Ghost.”
Cuba Gooding captured the statuette for his over-the-top football player character in “Jerry McGuire” and, of course, Halle Barry won playing an oversexed sluttish widow in the abominable, “Monster’s Ball.” Jamie Foxx earned Best Actor for his on point portrayal of legendary singer-musician Ray Charles.
Forrest Whittaker won playing the villainous Idi Amin and Mo’Nique won the Academy Award for the critically-acclaimed abusive parent in the movie, “Precious.” Jennifer Hudson won for her killer vocals and acting in “Dreamgirls” and Octavia Spencer was honored for playing the obeisant maid in “The Help.”
Lupita Nyong’o won in “12 Years a Slave” while Viola Davis received Best Supporting Actress for her riveting role in “Fences.” “Moonlight” brought Mahershala Ali honors as Best Supporting Actor. Morgan Freeman won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the fight film, “Million Dollar Baby” and captured Golden Globe acting honors for the embarrassing, sycophantic chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
So what reasonable conclusion can be drawn from this examination of Black acting honors? Except for characters related to entertainment or sports, rarely is one spotlighted for an Oscar unless Black actors are willing to play clearly negative or utterly innocuous characters. Movie makers control the narrative. Facts speak for themselves.
Back to the recording industry, the list of Blacks snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame include Tina Turner, Sade, Luther Vandross, New Edition, Zapp, Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band, Barry White, Mariah Carey, The Manhattans, Anita Baker, Guy, Patti Labelle, The Commodores, The Spinners, Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan and TLC. After four long decades, Janet Jackson was inducted in 2019 and the legendary Whitney Houston is finally one of this year’s inductees.
To reiterate. We don’t need white media, critics, performers, fans, or general public to validate Black talent. Given the limits of their contrasting perspective and often conflicting values, we should neither expect nor desire such unqualified affirmation.
African Americans should have greater appreciation for such ‘family’ recognition as The NAACP Image Awards, Black Girls Rock, the Black Entertainment Television and Soul Train Awards, the Stellar Awards, Black American Film Critics Award and others.
Don’t get it twisted, we should still call out Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards for ignoring or underrating Black talent and their jaded stereotypes of Black excellence. Honoring our own while holding white award folk accountable are not mutually exclusive concepts. Both should be in the game plan for fair play in the larger culture.
As conversations continue to unfold, April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, believes “there are ways to invest in alternatives where Blacks and marginalized groups are uplifted while simultaneously holding the academy and broader Hollywood accountable. That merges the essence of both critical approaches to the dilemma.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.