There are long-term consequences for the stubborn, racist logic that determines movies starring people of color are “unbankable.” One major concern, according to Erigha, is that these kinds of films will continue to be underfunded, even when they prove they can succeed. For example, the author said, “There’s this belief that if a black movie makes money, like Black Panther, then all of a sudden Hollywood will rush and make a lot of black movies.” But, Erigha noted, the overall number of black films tends not to increase dramatically, and those that are made continue to be underbudgeted. This leads to a system that consistently labels black-led or black-directed films economically inferior to those starring and made by white actors and directors. Erigha fears that this means the disparity in budgets, even among white and nonwhite films within the same genre, will persist, and perhaps even widen. Of course, black indie films with small to moderate budgets—such as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight ($4 million) and If Beale Street Could Talk (an estimated $12 million)—can become Oscar contenders. But the question is, why should so many black movies, indie or not, be expected to make do with less money for production and marketing?
Change comes slowly in Hollywood, so it can be tempting for audiences to attribute obvious signs of progress to deeper, structural shifts. Erigha agrees that “symbolic and numeric representation”—how people of color are portrayed and in what numbers—matters. And she does believe things are evolving, mostly thanks to an increase in women, people of color, and LGBTQ people behind the camera, as directors, writers, and producers—the types of crucial jobs that receive less attention come awards season. Still, it is the arguably most invisible segment of the industry that holds the most power and that is most resistant to change: the overwhelmingly white and male upper ranks of major movie studios, the people whose claims about what movies are economically inferior hold enormous sway despite having little basis in reality. These elite few agents, producers, and executives locate the talent, find the scripts, greenlight the movies, and set the budgets. They, in effect, shape the ways in which Americans understand the world through film.
Upending this power structure, something that no single movie or awards show can do, is key to dismantling the “Hollywood Jim Crow” system. At the same time, Erigha understands why the Oscars matter to so many people, why an event that will honor both a first-time indigenous actress from Mexico and a veteran African American director feels praise-worthy. “Everyone has their own way of coping with the idea that the society is not racially inclusive,” Erigha said. “For some people, that might mean not watching; for others, it might mean watching and celebrating the awards that happen for [people of color].” It seems the #OscarsSoWhite creator herself, April Reign, would agree. “The work continues,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter, which announced that Reign would be attending the Academy Awards for the first time on Sunday. “But I am thrilled to be able to celebrate the incremental progress that has been made,” she continued, “even if only for a night.”
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Tanisha Ford is an associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul and of the forthcoming Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion.
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