AFTER THE #OscarsSoWhite CONTROVERSY SWEPT THE NATION during last year's awards season, 2016 has proven to be an immense improvement, according to the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA). Prior to the release of their Best of 2016 list, they have declared this year as "the best EVER for blacks in cinema," with multiple films featuring story lines as diverse as their casts. "The studios and major film distributors really gave it to us this year," says Gil Robertson, AAFCA co-founder/president. "By any measurement, it’s been an exceptional year for blacks in film. From comedies to high-quality dramas and documentaries, 2016 will forever represent a bonanza year for black cinema and all cinema really."
I agree with AAFCA. In fact, six of the selections on my recent lists (Part I and Part II) highlighting must-see movies from 2016 are by or about African-Americans. Jeff Nichols' "Loving" told the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who were imprisoned in Virginia for getting married in 1958. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, establishing, in Loving v. Virginia, the constitutional freedom to marry outside of one's race. Nichols' film is eloquent in its simplicity and arrestingly beautiful. Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" is also based on a true story. It featured an Oscar-caliber performance from its first-time writer/director in the role of Nat Turner, a black preacher in the antebellum South who led an uprising of his fellow slaves three decades prior to the Civil War. Barry Jenkins's second feature (after "Medicine for Melancholy") is the hugely acclaimed coming-of-age drama, "Moonlight." It is a critical favorite that has already swept the Gotham Awards, winning Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Ensemble and the Audience Award. It has also garnered five Independent Spirit Award nominations, as well as the Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble. And the National Board of Review just gave the film accolades for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris).
Another favorite thus far is "Hidden Figures," Theodore Melfi's fact-based drama about three African-American female trailblazers in mathematics, science and engineering, whose unsung achievements at NASA played crucial roles in the program's first space missions. This is a story whose time has come, not only for the historical value, but for the beautiful acting by the lead heroines played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe (the National Board of Review awarded the film with its Best Ensemble prize). Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules' poignant documentary, "Maya Angelou and Still I Rise," explores the life of the iconic writer, poet, dancer, actress and activist. How she managed to survive everything in her life with such an exalted spirit is a lesson in itself. Another fine documentary, Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro," takes a deep dive into James Baldwin's unfinished novel about race in America. The fact that we are hearing Baldwin's actual words, occasionally read by the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson, makes the film consistently engrossing.
Other black-themed films from 2016 that I have yet to see include Denzel Washington's "Fences," an adaptation of August Wilson's play that many believe is destined to be a major Oscar player, and Ava DuVernay's documentary "13th," a scathing indictment of the racism that pervades the American prison system. I also have on my playlist "The Fits," "Miss Sharon Jones!," and other films that will be viewed before the end of the year. "Life Animated," a charming documentary about a young man with autism who makes sense of the world through Disney cartoons, certainly deserves a special mention. It was directed by Roger Ross Williams, who though not widely known, was the first African-American director to win an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Documentary Short Subject for "Music By Prudence." The National Board of Review included "Miss Sharon Jones!" and "Life, Animated" in its list rounding up the year's top 5 documentaries.
Though not necessarily in the Oscar categories, there were several films that featured African-American actors, directors and or producers in the comedy realm: "Kevin Hart: What Now?"; "Central Intelligence," starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson; "Barbershop: The Next Cut," starring Ice Cube, Regina Hall, Cedric The Entertainer and others; "Ride Along 2," also starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube; and Tyler Perry's "Boo! A Madea Halloween."
Since Roger Ross Williams won his Oscar, only two other black directors have received Academy Awards: T.J. Martin, co-director of the 2012 Best Documentary winner, "Undefeated," and Steve McQueen, director of the 2014 Best Picture winner, "12 Years a Slave." Yet the Best Director Oscar still has yet to be awarded to a black filmmaker. AAFCA co-founder Shawn Edwards says, "I am going to go out on a limb and predict that we will see a black actor nominated in every acting category and that at least four black-themed films will be nominated for Best Picture." “Regardless of the final tally,” Robertson says more cautiously, “we are both confident that we’ll see a record number of black nominees when Awards Season kicks into high gear.”
"The coming award nominations are going to definitely put a pause on #OscarsSoWhite this year," says Robertson. "But what we wonder is for how long? It’s undeniable that the studios have responded admirably to the tremendous outcry from the African American community through its delivery of the films that we’ve seen this year. But what about next year and the year after that? [...] And what about films about the Asian, Hispanic, Native American and LGBT communities? 'Moonlight' has been a bright spot in representing both the black and LGBT communities but we need more. So we at AAFCA are extremely hopeful that these 2016 black films will have a domino effect in providing platform opportunities for films that represent other communities as well."