On Sunday night, after “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first time in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards that a film by a black director ever won the top honor — comedian Michael Ian Black, a master of snark, tweeted this: “Between ‘Django’ last year and ’12 Years’ this year, slavery has never been hotter!!!”
Inartful as hell, of course, but that piquant tweet drove home a deeper social and cultural point about the impact of African American culture on the most popular art form in the world, and what it’s apparently taken to achieve that level of attention. Slavery remains the indelible American metaphor-scar, its legacy an equally indelible component of modern American life.
But what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and its other movers and shakers and proxies, decided for the second year in a row was to recognize the power of stories that are nothing less than American history. The fact that it’s African American history has become something embraced by Hollywood, which seems to be reaching a comfort zone with film productions reflecting more of the diversity of America.
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The Oscars’ apparent clean break with the past requires a look into what that past has been. The demographic inertia that’s characterized the Academy’s membership (and its voting patterns) was smartly distilled recently by a Lee & Low Books infographic. It’s surprising to see the monochromatic aspects of the Academy’s identity (according to the 2012 data) laid out so plain to see.
As of 2012, in all branches of the Academy, 98 percent of producers were white; 98 percent of writers were white; 88 percent of actors were white; 94 percent of all voting Academy members were white; 77 percent of all voting Academy members were male.
The Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” forces the most painful part of black American history into the forefront of the culture in permanently inescapable ways. What’s just as inescapable is the fact that those white male Academy voters broke, however briefly, with the hegemony of their identity and recognized the power of Solomon Northup’s saga — not as a black story, but as an American story, and beyond that, a human story. The triumph of “12 Years a Slave” was, among other things, and at least for now, a triumph of equality over our more cynical cultural expectations.
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The multiple-Oscar triumphs of “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” are only part of the story of a cultural evolution on race and the national history. The films “42” (recounting Jackie Robinson’s battle in the major leagues) and “The Butler” (Lee Daniels’ fictionalization of the life of a White House servant) also furthered it on the pop-cultural front. But the nation lives black history as current events.
President Obama’s recent confessional moment, in an event announcing a White House initiative for young black males, taps into the increasingly tragic trajectory of young African American males and the history that spawned it. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have direct parallels with too much of the national past. And politically, as challenges to voting rights increase between now and November, in statehouses across the country, the nation will find out how past is prologue all over again.
History’s what you can’t get away from. The legacy of the peculiar institution persists right up to now; disparities of employment, income, health and wealth show how the past informs the present. Just like voting rights — the phrase itself calls out history — are top of mind for state legislators sworn to suppress those rights between now and November. Just like their antecedent cousins in the Jim Crow South did, years ago.
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History’s what you can’t get away from. And it’s not like we really try to get away from it, given our numerological fascinations — since we’re so big on even-numbered anniversaries. Last year the nation used the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as a way into tenuous but welcome conversations about race and progress, and how far African Americans have moved the needle since August 1963.
This year we’ll observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Next year we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which institutionalized the universality of the voting franchise … and which today is under siege like never before.
A lot’s been made — too much, frankly — about various incendiary debates about the value and importance of Black History Month, which takes place every February. But whether you agree with the idea of that observance or not, its purpose as another, parallel window into America is being achieved in months that have nothing to do with February. In important ways, black history as a common American experience has long since slipped the surly bonds of the shortest month of the year. Emancipated. Unchained.
By way of our popular culture; our political culture, for which black history has been as much a problem as an opportunity (look at how President Reagan resisted the King holiday); and our calendar culture (the one we depend on to remember anything), black history is steadily gaining wider exposure and recognition (if not always acceptance) in the wider cross-section of the American population.
Black history is also, always, current events. It was the pursuit of recognition of that fact that made Black History Month possible, and necessary, in the first place. _________________________________________________________________