Documenting Oscar Diversity: Talking Race, Prisons, and Women Directors

Guest Perspectives: Bobby Rivers, Former VH1 celebrity talk show host, ABC News film critic & entertainment reporter,  syndicated game show host and a Food Network host. Bobby Rivers is a SAG-AFTRA union member available for professional entertainment work and you can see examples of his on-camera skills at this link.

I predicted that Ava DuVernay would make Hollywood history with “Selma,” a strong drama about Martin Luther King, Jr. as he organized a crucial march during the height of the civil rights movement in 1964. I predicted that she would be the first African American woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Director.

She gave you a historical film about racial injustice, a film that did not feel like a history lesson lecture. It had a working class passion that connected to your heart, mind and spirit. It was so good that it was nominated for Best Picture 2014. But Ava DuVernay was not nominated for Best Director.

Ever since the Oscars were new back in the late 1920s, the collection of nominees for Best Director has been overwhelmingly and predominantly white male. Not every man who directed a film that was nominated for Best Picture was also nominated for Best Director. But you can’t help but get that “What the hell?” feeling when you see the small number of women who have directed a Best Picture Oscar nominee and the even smaller number of women who got a Best Director Oscar nomination for that achievement. About 12 women, including Ava, have directed a film that got a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  Also in that group are Barbra Streisand (“Prince of Tides”), Penny Marshall (“Awakenings”), Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God”), Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) and Lone Scherfig (“An Education”).  Only Jane Campion for “The Piano,” Sofia Coppola for “Lost In Translation” and Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” got Best Director nominations for their Best Picture nominated films.  Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director.  “The Hurt Locker” won for Best Picture.  Her next film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” was also a Best Picture nominee.  But Bigelow did not get a Best Director Oscar nomination for that one.  The first woman nominated for Best Director was Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller for the 1975 foreign film, “Seven Beauties.”  Martin Scorcese racked up 8 Oscar nominations for Best Director and 7 of those films were also nominated for Best Picture.  The exception was 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  Actor Mel Gibson won a Best Director Oscar for 1995’s “Braveheart.”  It also won Best Picture.  His new film, “Hacksaw Ridge” is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture.  He’s nominated for Best Director.  Quentin Tarantino was a Best Director nominee for “Pulp Fiction.” It was also nominated for Best Picture.  Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” was a Best Picture Oscar nominee. He was also nominated for Best Director.  I think you get my point.

Ava DuVernay is an Oscar nominee in the Best Documentary category for “13th.”  Oh my Lord.  What a raw and revealing, eloquent and infuriating feature on the systemic racism that continues to infect America’s prisons.  It’s a three-way intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the 21st Century, one that has its roots in our country’s age of slavery and one that suppresses, one that dehumanizes people of color — especially black men.  Slavery was profitable for white people in America.  Slaves were purchased and put to work like cattle.  They were not equal citizens.  They were not even seen as humans with feelings, wants and needs.  Their black lives did not matter.  Ava DuVernay investigates how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was worded in a way that prohibited slavery — unless it was as punishment for a crime.  So, if you brand them as criminals and keep them behind bars, you can work them as if they were slaves.

DuVernay, with the help of scholars and politicians from “both sides of the aisle,” shows the domino effect that this systemic racism at the end of Civil War times had on lynching, Jim Crow laws,  segregation, race riots, police brutality, the murders of young black men from Emmett Till to Trayon Martin and Tamir Rice, to certain coded language used by Presidents Nixon and Reagan in their wars on drugs.  America’s mass incarceration and practices of “convict leasing” are a modern-day slavery.

You also see Donald Trump long before he became President.  One way to brand people of color as criminals was to instill fear in the public.  We see footage from the incendiary 1989 story of The Central Park Five.  Five black and Latino youths, all minors, were accused of raping a white woman jogger in Central Park.  They were put behind bars.  Millionaire Trump vocally declared his hatred of them and said that they should be executed.  His statement made front page headlines.  The five black and Latino youths, with the help of DNA testing, were later found to be innocent.  To this day, there is no record of Donald Trump having apologized to those five men who, as innocent minors, were put behind bars with adult convicts.

“13th” shows how a big Hollywood epic from the silent screen era shoveled out a huge dose of that fear.  D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” was an impressive technical achievement in film-making but its depictions of black people set my teeth on edge.  White actors played black men as rapists and lazy, shiftless, crude characters.  The Ku Klux Klan was seen as heroic.  In fact, D.W. Griffith set a large cross ablaze to symbolize the severity of the KKK with a visual image.  Up to then, the KKK had not done such a thing.  Reportedly, the klan picked up the habit from “The Birth of a Nation.”  The film helped increase klan membership.

I saw “13th” on Netflix.  I am so glad Ava DuVernay got an Oscar nomination for this devastating and enlightening feature that is oh so relevant today.

Black. Bold. Brilliant. And gay.  That was acclaimed writer and activist James Baldwin.  He had large, weary eyes that did not just look at you but could look into your soul, examine it and then tell you the essential truth of yourself.  He tells America the truth of herself in his own words in “I Am Not Your Negro.”

If there could be a tie for Best Documentary, like when Katharine Hepburn (for “The Lion In Winter”) and Barbra Streisand (for “Funny Girl”) tied at the Oscars for Best Actress of 1968, I wish this blistering 90-minute documentary would tie with DuVernay’s “13th.”

“13th” stems from a Constitutional amendment an a lucrative horror that was widespread below the Mason-Dixon line.  That horror was slavery.  In “I Am Not Your Negro,”  Baldwin address the bigotry of the South in his lifetime and he also zeroes in on the above the Mason-Dixon line racial inequality.  His is the voice that your upscale white liberal friends need to hear because, bless their hearts, they think that the playing field is level because the racism isn’t obvious like a KKK rally.

Rosie O’Donnell and I were veejays together on VH1 in the late 1980s. Dave Chappelle was host of “Saturday Night Live” for a great edition of that show, one that aired soon after the election.  In one sketch, I mentioned to Rosie that I knew just how Chappelle’s character felt at the election returns party surrounded by his white liberal friends who vocalized that there was no way Trump could win.  He just rolled his eyes.  He didn’t vote for Trump but he was a black man in America.  Rosie commented, “So you thought he’d win?”  I responded that I wanted Hillary to win.  She repeated her question.  I answered that I was not surprised at Trump’s victory because, when he said “Make America Great Again,” that was code for people to hear “Make America White Again.”  Many in Trump’s base were angry that a black man was in the White House.  And they didn’t want a woman running the White House either.  Trump repeatedly declared President Obama was NOT an American and he made those disrespectful claims while he made big money as a reality show host on NBC.  We black people were angry at those remarks.  NBC let him slide.  As a black man in America, I was not surprised that Trump won.  Deeply disappointed, but not surprised.

That was the first time Rosie and I had ever even slightly talked about race in all the years we’ve known each other.  James Baldwin made people talk about race and listen to what was being said even if the talk made them uncomfortable.  We saw this in his appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.”  Cavett, an excellent talk show host, had a young Caucasian touch of Peter Pan’s “Oh, the cleverness of me” about him when his show was popular.  You could tell he fancied himself just as much a celebrity as the veteran celebrities he was interviewing.  Personally, I bristled when he used the word “niggardly” for a laugh when interviewing Muhammad Ali.  Cavett wouldn’t have dared to pull something like that off while interviewing Baldwin.  The Harlem native was an expatriate.  Baldwin died in France in 1987.  He was only 63.  What a shame Hollywood never adapted one of his plays or novels into a film or hired him to write a screenplay that was produced.

In “I Am Not Your Negro,” Baldwin uses the lives of three black men in his life….men who made headlines…to examine race and class.  The men are Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Baldwin was at King’s historic March on Washington.  All three men fought for the civil rights and equality of black people.  All three men were shot and killed.  Baldwin’s words come from a remembrance of them he was writing.  We see clips of the Civil Rights Era.  We see Baldwin on talk shows.  We see him speak at Cambridge.  He gives voice to the frustrations, angers and exclusion of African Americans that still rings true today.  Whereas “13th” delves into a systematic racism sprung from the Constitution here in the Land of the Free, “I Am Not Your Negro” is guide for how to deal with and talk about race relations today while also addressing America’s racist past as seen in “13th.”  I loved seeing the vintage TV footage of Baldwin.  Technically, he was not a handsome man but the TV camera loved the drama and intelligence of Baldwin’s face.  He had TV charisma.  He held your attention.  His voice was like a modern jazz piece about heartbreak and the loss of love.  Like Ellington’s “Lush Life.”

The old news footage and clips of Baldwin on talk shows is important.  Today’s young — and not so young — American audience members may not be aware of history.  Let’s look at “The Help.”  In the movie, black people are grief-stricken to hear that Medgar Evers had been killed.  How many people watching “The Help” were unaware that Evers was a real person?

Baldwin had a great knowledge of classic films and uses films to get across his message of his own racial enlightenment.  He talks about Gary Cooper’s westerns.  As Baldwin grew up, realized that he, as a black man, was like the Indians being shot and chased off their native land.  Like “13th,” he goes back to Hollywood’s silent film era and we see images of genteel Southerners who treated their slaves well.  But the slaves were still slaves, purchased and owned and denied an education.  What is so genteel about that treatment?  But, in the words of Baldwin, perhaps Hollywood produced those genteel images to make itself not feel guilty about the inequality. Could Hollywood still be doing that today?  When you see movies about race such as “The Long Walk Home” starring Whoopi Goldberg and “The Help” starring Viola Davis, the story is told from the viewpoint of a genteel white person.  And, when you saw TV reviews of movies such as “The Color Purple,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Malcolm X,” “Monster’s Ball,” “The Butler,” “The Help” and “12 Years a Slave,” you never saw a black film critic do the review.  The network news shows, the syndicated film review programs and the movie channels always had white males telling you why you should see a film about the difficulties of black life in America.

The section about James Baldwin and the groundbreaking black playwright Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”) having a civil rights “Come to Jesus” talk with Robert Kennedy is the stuff that memorable movie scenes are made of.  This meeting was shortly before Baldwin lost his dear lesbian playwright/activist friend to cancer at age 34.

I interviewed Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett in his Hollywood home five years ago.  Gossett was the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  He won for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”  Gossett was in the original Broadway cast of “A Raisin in the Sun” and recreated his role in the film version with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.  I asked him if he felt the life of Hansberry would make a good biopic.  Gossett definitely did and he feels the perfect person to play Lorraine Hansberry is Taraji P. Henson.

If you see “I Am Not Your Negro,” you will appreciate “Hidden Figures,” a true story starring Taraji P. Henson, even more.  And when are we going to see someone play James Baldwin onscreen?

Several times during “I Am Not Your Negro” as I sat in the theater, I wanted to throw my hand up and shout “Preach it!” at something Baldwin said.  This riveting documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by voiced by Samuel L. Jackson.


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