The number of nominations that “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight” do or don’t receive will be one of the main lenses through which the 2017 Academy Awards are analyzed, especially in light of this tense juncture for race relations.
On the bright side, at least Jenna Bush Hager didn’t say “Hidden Fences in the Moonlight,” mashing together all three of the critically acclaimed movies about African-Americans that are in theaters right now.
I’m referring to that cringe-worthy moment at the Golden Globes when Hager, a correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show, mistakenly referred to “Hidden Figures” as “Hidden Fences,” something that the actor Michael Keaton also did later that same night. “Fences” is its own production, and it, “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” are all in the hunt for Oscar nominations, to be announced next Tuesday.
They tell unrelated stories in unrelated styles. And they’re not equally accomplished, not to my eye. “Moonlight” has a daring, a poetry and a jolting intimacy that lift it well above the other two.
Meryl Streep’s Hollywood-flattering speech at the Globes conveniently overlooked the industry’s habit of pairing male stars with female ones half their age, thwarting female directors, stereotyping minorities, glamorizing reprobates and putting money above morality time and again.”
But they are indeed linked, because together they represent a real chance, after the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, for a bit of an #OscarsSoBlack correction, or at least an #OscarsMoreDiverse one. The number of nominations that these three movies do or don’t receive will be one of the main lenses through which the 2017 Academy Awards are analyzed, especially in light of this tense juncture for race relations.
The president-elect feuds in an unnecessary, undignified fashion with a hero of the civil rights movement. (Then again, the president-elect feuds in that fashion with a sprawling cast.) He built a political base partly on the lie that our first black president was born outside the country. Because of that and much more, many black members of Congress, among other Democrats, won’t attend his inauguration.
Race has already been a significant part of Oscar talk, with disputes about why Casey Affleck, the white star of “Manchester by the Sea,” is teed up for a best actor nomination (and, possibly, a win) when Nate Parker, the star and director of “The Birth of a Nation,” is almost certain to be passed over. Parker has been dogged by a long-ago rape accusation; Affleck has confronted more recent sexual harassment suits. Is it the difference in the allegations, in the quality of their movies or in the color of their skin that explains their divergent fates?
After there were no black nominees in the acting and directing categories for the last two years, the Academy instituted plans to diversify its membership. No matter how this year’s voting goes, I expect complaints: that the pendulum swung too far or not far enough; that merit is being inflated or denied.
And so I’d like to dwell, beforehand, on the happy, hopeful fact of these three movies themselves. Along with other examinations of race on screens big and small, they have a grace and an insight missing in so much of our public debate. Better still, they’re finding appreciative audiences.
That was one take-away from the Globes, where “Moonlight” and the television comedies “Atlanta” and “black-ish” won big. It’s also evident in the triumph of “Hidden Figures” as the top-grossing movie in America each of the last two weekends.
“Hidden Figures” tells the fact-based story of three black women who were unheralded heroes at NASA in the 1960s. It has a vital message, affectingly rendered: Prejudice not only strangles individual dreams but stupidly bleeds a society of the talents it needs to reach its fullest potential.
“Fences,” adapted from August Wilson’s play, concentrates on one black family in the 1950s, in particular one black man, played by Denzel Washington, who also directed the movie. It shows how insidiously an awareness of unjustly imposed limits eats away at a person.
Although “Moonlight” comes at the wages of racism less bluntly, its depiction of a tormented boy’s journey to manhood asks big, haunting questions about the social and cultural forces that doom too many young, disadvantaged African-Americans today. Its director, Barry Jenkins, sees a hurt that you can’t turn away from and a hope that you can’t ignore where so many news stories and politicians see only statistics. Maybe that’s because he’s black. Or maybe it’s because he’s brilliant.
I don’t mean to hold up the movies as some uniquely enlightened antidote to the ugliness elsewhere. Meryl Streep’s Hollywood-flattering speech at the Globes conveniently overlooked the industry’s habit of pairing male stars with female ones half their age, thwarting female directors, stereotyping minorities, glamorizing reprobates and putting money above morality time and again.
Movies give us some of our worst ideas about ourselves. But then, like great fiction, they’re our bridges to insufficiently understood lives, our compasses to inadequately learned truths. That’s true of the three films I just described.
They may yield a best supporting actress nominee apiece and thus an apparent Oscar first: three black contenders in one acting category. That would hardly make up for all the oversights past. But it would be cause for celebration nonetheless.