Film & TV

Faking History and Remaking Oscar News

Regina King with her award for Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk and Spike Lee with his Best Adapted Screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman. at the 91st Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif., February 24, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The racialization of Academy Award ‘firsts’ from mammies to Spike Lee

When it comes to movies, the Oscars are one way of learning history. Students of film can peruse the annals to gather a sense of what movie culture was like in different periods, reading the list of winners (and nominations) as a guide to cultural standards and film-industry norms.

But journalists — those who cover the entertainment beat as well as the Beltway — abuse the historical function of the Oscars by routinely hijacking its significance. Specifically, when Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler won Academy Awards for, respectively, the costumes and art direction of Black Panther, many media wonks (professional and amateur alike) immediately proclaimed that they had “made history as the first African-American women to win” in those categories.

What kind of “history” is this really? When the reporting of news events carries such automatic estimation of cultural value, the term “first” is used as manipulation, a measuring rod of social progress.

This makes the political idea of “progress” more important than the subject being reported. Carter’s and Beachler’s work goes undescribed; their personal histories as people are delimited to the social-justice categories of race and gender. First-semester journalism classes used to teach that mentioning a person’s race or gender was appropriate only when it was essential to the news.

When journalists refashion news this way, they imply that race and gender are the only things that matter — the only way persons in the news need to be distinguished. The fact of Carter’s and Beachler’s wins can be simply stated, yet the media inflates those facts with prejudiced importance. They fake movie history by remaking the news.

In this way movie history is determined by political preference. The content and aesthetics of Black Panther are deemed irrelevant; only the ideological propaganda represented by Oprah Winfrey’s Oscar-campaign statement that Black Panther “is more than a movie” is made to matter. Readers and journalists who don’t understand this remain helpless before the suasion of demagogues and publicists.

Filmgoers who maintain their starry-eyed innocence about journalism, the Oscars, and the politics of the movies cannot sense how socially backward and culturally deceiving the racialization of the Academy Awards has become.

A few examples: The very showy acting prizes (which journalists call “the major awards”) went to performers, Mahershala Ali and Regina King, who were repeatedly defined by their racial identity.

What went unmentioned was that each played racially and socially stereotyped roles: It is Ali’s second win for playing a gay man (his first was for Moonlight), and King won for portraying yet another of the Academy’s most favored clichés, the mammy.

When former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs purged the Academy’s elder members a few years back and instituted quotas to include more ethnic-identified voters regardless of industry status and experience, she set the stage for so many recent race-based Oscar nominations and wins. What looks like social progress was merely rigged electioneering. a politicization of the arts. Through improper journalistic acceptance — and extension — of this practice, film culture is turned into self-congratulatory propaganda.

The ugly consequences of this new, self-pleasing, progressive model could be seen in Spike Lee’s win for adapting the screenplay of BlacKkKlansman, another of his race-baiting films advocating social dissension, mistrust, cynicism, and sarcasm. Reported as long-time-coming vindication for being denied an Oscar for 1989’s Do the Right Thing, Lee’s win was described in “first” terms. Almost every journalist and pundit missed the real news behind Lee’s BlacKkKlansman’s consolation victory.

It is a well-kept secret that few filmgoers actually like Lee’s movies. The films are artistically jumbled, politically specious, and stressful, not entertaining. Over the years, critics have customarily hidden their lack of enjoyment by praising Lee’s films when they open, then forgetting about them at year’s end during the lists and prizes season. BlacKkKlansman was the first exception to this pattern, for reasons that are inconvenient for journalists to recognize and admit. Lee’s contumely in BlacKkKlansman was welcomed because it fit the mainstream-media narrative to discredit the current administration. The media are fond of Lee’s spurious “six words” quote about his film: “Black Man Infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” But the fact is BlacKkKlansman’s black lead character (John David Washington) never infiltrates the Klan; it’s the white Jewish character (Adam Driver) who performs the imposture. In this way BlacKkKlansman is similar to the Oscar-winning Best Picture Green Book, which features a black–white buddy team to point out the racial tension in America’s past. Lee wasted no time after the ceremony to immediately discredit Green Book’s victory as “a bad call.”

So last night’s awards hold interest for laying out the political economy of Hollywood (both the motion-picture Academy and the body of mainstream filmmakers who constitute it). Each film that was honored demonstrates the values that each institution set for itself and before the public.

So when it comes to movies, that old saying “History is written by the victors,” should be amended to: Movie history, like movie news, is faked by journalism’s losers.

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Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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