The 2016 Academy Awards got infinitely more press for their failures than their successes; each of the nominees were drowned out by the controversy over a lack of nominations for non-Caucasian performers. This unfortunately, is not a new problem, but was painfully apparent in 2016, as none of the nominees in any of the acting categories were people of color – a trend that lead to the resurface of the social media friendly #OscarsSoWhite. With the Academy Awards right around the corner, it is time to reflect briefly on what has happened this year in Hollywood, and what is on the horizon.
If you’ve paid any attention to awards season, one name on everybody’s lips since October is Moonlight. This independent film seemingly came from nowhere and has taken the nation by storm. It has racked up critical praise, a decent box office pull, and the honor of being labeled one of the must-see films of 2016. It has been nominated for multiple awards at multiple festivals, winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and receiving 8 Academy Award nominations. It has had tough competition this season, losing ground to Fences in the Best Supporting Actress category. The latter film also ended up with a decent profit; a project that has been long in development for director and star, Denzel Washington. Taking a well-studied play and bringing it to the big screen is hardly a small undertaking, and Washington knocks it out of the park even while performing double-duty as lead actor and director. Both Moonlight and Fences were passion projects, based on works from the stage and transformed into quality films by passionate men who truly understood the background of their protagonists. These men were able to transfer their passions from the stage directly to the cinema – not an easy feat.
Tying into the critical success of black narrative cinema, 2016 was a fantastic year for black documentarians. With I Am Not Your Negro, Trapped, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, O.J.: Made in America, and The 13th all hitting cinemas or streaming, black documentarians are covering subjects that pertain to black culture. In fact, 4 of the 5 films nominated for Best Feature Documentary are directed by African-Americans. Life Animated, O.J.: Made in America, I Am Not Your Negro and The 13th will be competing for the prize; now that’s one hell of a race.
One of the directors we’ve had our eye on, Ryan Coogler (left), is finally breaking into the larger Hollywood scene. After being completely shafted for any Academy Award nods for Creed, a legitimate box office success that revitalized interest in a dying franchise, Coogler has moved on to a much larger project. He is now taking on the feature film translation of Black Panther, with a road paved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s graphic novel, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One and an all-star cast behind him. In case you are unaware of what kind of talent Coogler will bring to the Marvel universe, check out the one-take fight scene from Creed and the trailer for Fruitvale Station, which shares the same cinematographer as Black Panther.
On the smaller ascent is comedian Jordan Peele (right), who is making a huge career for himself separate from his long-time comedy partner, Keegan Michael Key. He recently worked with Alex Rubens to co-write the mildly received Keanu, which he co-starred in and produced alongside Key. For his next project, the Sundance success, Get Out, Peele takes the director’s chair. A social commentary infused with a Stepford Wives flavor, Get Out has received glowing reviews from a variety of critics and is shaping up to be a sleeper hit. It reeks of atmosphere while remaining shockingly brutal with observations about interracial relationships and socioeconomic status, albeit with an exaggerated twist. You can watch the trailer here.
One of the most important points about the films of 2016-2017 is that truly original narratives are being depicted. Whether it be the story of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan with the excellent Hidden Figures, an examination of the urban school system with The Fits, or the historically accurate, complicated marriages explore in A United Kingdom (left) and Loving (right), all of these films are distinct. They are not yet another prestigious slave narrative like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (as fantastic as it is), but they’re all films with significant critical acclaim that go beyond the stereotypical image of black society. The heroes of these stories vary: some are highly educated while others possess street smarts, but the characters are all extremely strong men and women who do what they feel is right in order to succeed. This is especially true in regards to the critically successful Fences and Moonlight, both films that portray distinctly different aspects of black culture. Cinema can finally begin to distance itself from the standard narratives of the past and can start fostering more creative freedom with black cinema. There is a market for it, audiences want it, and I, for one, am excited to see what comes next.