Stop Minimizing Black Achievement in Film by Tying It to #OscarsSoWhite

Last week, two black men made entertainment history. On Tuesday, following the explosive premiere of his debut film The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/star Nate Parker closed the biggest deal in that festival’s 38 years, selling distribution rights to Fox Searchlight for a whopping $17.5 million. Then, at Sunday night’s SAG Awards, Idris Elba won two prizes – one of them for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role for Beasts of No Nation, a trophy which usually serves as a reasonably accurate predictor for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

That’s not the case this year, of course, since no people of color were nominated for acting Oscars, resulting in a raucous and welcome discussion of the lack of inclusion in Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular. Which is all well and good, except it appears that, for the next year, achievements of this type are going to be written off as some sort of overcorrection for the recent Oscar white-outs, rather than recognition of important films and performances.

It started early with Birth – moments after, in fact, when Jeff Wells (best known to most of the world as The Guy Who Thought Amy Schumer Was Too Fat to Star in a Romantic Comedy) began tweeting uninvited responses to positive post-screening Twitter reviews, before taking to his garbage-scow website to play another round of “I know what they’re really thinking.” (For someone utterly lacking in anything resembling empathy, he fancies himself quite the mind reader of those who dare disagree with His Truth.) You see, Wells insists, us “Sundance hipsters” lauded Birth of a Nation not for the urgency of the filmmaking, not for the power of the storytelling, not for the majesty of its conclusions, but to “(a) fortify their compassionate racially enlightened filmgoer credentials and (b) push back against #OscarsSoWhite.”

Still from "The Birth of a Nation"

Normally, it’s best to treat Wells’ writings as the feces graffiti they are, but his theses have been echoed (if not quite as explicitly) by other critics of the film and its craft. “This year the emphasis on diversity seemed even more pronounced,” noted The Los Angeles Times. “The abundance of African American winners — and the acclaim for and discussion around Parker’s film — underlined Sundance’s interest in standing apart from Hollywood on this issue.” Birth, Owen Gleiberman writes for the BBC, is “just good enough to make me wish it had been better,” and thus its buzz “has more to do with the news climate in which the film has premiered than the quality of the picture.” All righty. “It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, “and one that will assuredly generate a great deal of media attention, and probably controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons.”

(Meanwhile, Forbes’ headline on the film’s Sundance reception, “Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation Benefits from #OscarsSoWhite,” was met with a justified Twitter pushback, and was quietly altered to “Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation Cannot Be Allowed to Be An All-Purpose Solution to #OscarsSoWhite.”)

Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation"

The Hollywood Reporter sounded that sneering note again in their coverage of the SAGs, which found Mr. Elba winning the Supporting Actor category, where he couldn’t even land an Oscar nomination — the first time that’s happened in the ceremony’s 20-plus-year history. But rather than situating that win as a counter to the ugly “no people of color deserved Oscar nominations” argument that’s appeared in more mainstream outlets than you might think, THR chalked Elba’s win up to buyer’s remorse, calling the diversity of the SAG wins “a Rebuke to #OscarsSoWhite” and carefully noting that the SAG voting closed January 29, two weeks after the announcement of the lily-white Oscar nominations and the subsequent controversy.

Do these films and wins mean more in an environment in which inclusion is so sorely lacking? Of course. But framing the reception and sale of Birth of a Nation and Idris Elba’s SAG win as overcorrections, less about the quality of their work than the atmosphere around them, is not only ugly but infantilizing — it minimizes their considerable achievements, and allows naysayers to write off their boosters as (Jesus Christ, yes, he actually said this) “p.c. goose-steppers.” And it makes their critics sound like spoiled white kids braying that affirmative action forced them into their safety schools.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Wells and his more articulate colleagues legitimately disliked or held reservations about Birth, or that some critics felt other Supporting Actor nominees were more deserving than Elba. But to write off their success as some sort of white guilt-induced mass hypnotism isn’t just an attempt to legitimize one’s own opinion; it’s an attempt to delegitimize everyone else’s. And, via the soft bigotry of low expectations, the work itself.