In bleak situations, incremental improvements can be mistaken for big time progress. So it goes with Hollywood’s consistent inability to include actors of color.
Popular critical consensus suggests that we may have as many as four black Best Actor nominees: Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), Idris Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”), Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”). Ejiofor is currently favored to win the category, where he’ll probably be joined by the likes of Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”) and Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”).
That these men of color are even being discussed in awards blogger circles is certainly cause for celebration, because each of their films presents a perspective that doesn’t get much play in Hollywood. But insofar as these four movies are important, they are also limited by their veracity. They’re all based on true stories: “12 Years” tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was captured and enslaved and wrote an autobiography by the same name; “Mandela” is self-explanatory; “Fruitvale Station” centers on the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant III, a black man shot dead by a police officer in Oakland; “The Butler” draws its meat from the life of Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked for the White House for over three decades.
Put another way, these roles have to be played by black actors. Each of these men has more than earned the nominations they’re expected to receive (now’s a good time to pinch in some salt: awards bloggers love to shower performances with praise, but nominations are certainly not guaranteed), but the fact that they’re generally only rewarded for roles that literally could not have been given to white actors is cause for concern.
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