Oscars not so white after all

Nikhil Thiyyar

The nomination of 'Hidden Figures' for the best picture Academy Award says a lot about the times we live in

 

Misogynoir is misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias. It was coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey, who created the term to address misogyny directed toward black women in American visual and popular culture. Hollywood films that address problems that exist at the intersection point of racism and sexism rarely see the light of the day and when they do they are barely acknowledged. This neglect is firmly ensconced within a broad history of discrimination that Hollywood had displayed towards movies with ‘coloured’ protagonists. To explore that history one does not have to go back decades but just take a look at the voting trends of the Academy Awards in the past two years. For the uninitiated, the demographic composition of the Academy voter base is overwhelmingly white and male. 94 percent of all voters are white and 76 percent of all voters are males in their 50s and 60s. This composition has ensured that stories that interrogate racial issues are rarely nominated. Last years list of Oscar nominees is a case in point.

When the 2016 Oscar nominees were announced, for the second consecutive year, all twenty acting nominees and four out of the five directors nominated were Caucasian. The nominations created an instantaneous uproar with the lack of diversity becoming a matter of heated debate in the wider public sphere. Particularly stinging were the rebukes to ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ which were both critical favourites and featured coloured actors as protagonists. Sylvester Stallone received a deserving nomination for his reprisal of Rocky Balboa in “Creed” – but neither the film’s black star, Michael B. Jordan, nor black writer-director Ryan Coogler, were  recognized. Lupita Nyong’o who became the first Kenyan actress to win an Oscar in 2014 expressed her dismay at the nominations by saying, ” disappointed by the lack of inclusion in this year’s Academy Awards nomination. It has me thinking about unconscious prejudice and what merits prestige in our culture. I stand with my peers who are calling for change in expanding the stories that are told and recognition of the people who tell them.” The controversy gained so much traction in the media that a week after the nominations announcement, the Academy announced several rules changes regarding membership in hopes of increasing the number of women and minorities in the membership by 2020. The Academy may have breathed a sigh of relief when it managed to evade any such brouhaha over the nominees for the 89th Academy awards. Seven of the 20 actors announced as Oscar nominees this year are not white. Actors Denzel Washingon, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris and Octavia Spencer were announced as nominees, along with directors Barry Jenkins, Raoul Peck, Herbert Peck and Ava DuVernay. Even more encouraging than this uptick of racial diversity is the fact that a movie that highlights the achievements of black women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field at a crucial moment of the civil rights moment has found a best picture nomination.

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, chronicles a time in history when racism and sexism were at their zenith. USA in the 1950s was a country roiled by racial tensions and anger, not unlike the USA of 2017 where the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is mirroring the civil rights movement in multiple ways. The film explores the dichotomy of a time where America was eager to send humans into space but equally reluctant to advance civil rights to its black citizens. Even though NASA was supposedly a progressive institution seeking to achieve the highest goals for humankind, it was still based out of Langley in Virginia, a Southern segregated state. It is here that Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson-talented and overqualified women of colour-must find their way through the bowels of an organisation that seeks to send men into space but wants to keep its women of colour underground. To see the film in its proper context, it is essential to understand a crucial chain of events. In the early Civil Rights Movement, Philip Randolph led the March on Washington Movement, which convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941, banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. Had that order not been passed it was likely that many qualified African-American women would not have found work in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the modern day predecessor of National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). NASA in many ways was a race and gender relations laboratory.

 

We have all seen a broad swathe of dramas that address America’s long history of racial inequality. Ava DuVernay’s Selma chronicled a pivotal moment in history with verve and tenacity. Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ tried to do the same but imploded under rape allegations against Parker. Hidden Figures which is based on real NASA employees talks about an alternative form of resistance: standing up to a system that is consciously or unconsciously pressing them down. Hidden Figures pays a large amount of attention to the work done by Katherine Goble. In the 1960s Mercury space program alumni Alan Shepard and John Glenn raked in the accolades for being the first men to enter space. Behind those towering achievements were human computers like Goble who calculated the orbital trajectories of their spacecrafts so as to ensure a safe return home. For the Mercury missions, Goble did trajectory analysis for Shepard's Freedom 7 mission in 1961, and (at John Glenn's request) did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962. Despite Glenn's trajectory being planned by computers, Glenn reportedly wanted Goble herself to run through the equations to make sure they were safe.

The film also faithfully captures how while working six day weeks at a job that had a large capacity for ennui and dreariness, Goble was still expected to uphold the societal norms of being a good mother. The insults and indignities that Goble, Vaughan and Jackson had to endure while trying to climb up a ladder that looked vertical but was actually horizontal form a crucial part of the film. Even though Goble had a prodigious talent for maths and could outthink most of her male colleagues, she still had to race across half-a-mile to use a restroom. Due to segregated facilities, the only bathroom that Goble could use was a coloured women’s restroom outside the NASA campus. This discrimination provides a deliciously cathartic moment in the film. Fed up at having to work like a dog and yet being denied the most basic of amenities, Goble lashes out at her supervisor Al Harison( Kevin Costner). The outburst shocks Harison to such an extent that he literally takes a hammer and tears down a sign next to a coloured bathroom. The movies depiction of individual action in the face of obstacles and adversity is beautiful and moving to say the least. Perhaps the best part of the film is that chooses to skip the recurring trope of inaccessible genius. The trio of Goble, Vaughan and Jackson are not shown as blazing talents beyond the pale of humanity but instead as rooted members of their communities who seek to find balance in their lives despite extreme demands from work. This is no tale of individual brilliance like ‘A beautiful mind’ or a depiction of tortured genius like ‘The Imitation Game’. It’s just a deeply moving portrait of three courageous and brilliant women swimming against the overwhelming undercurrent of embedded gender and racial biases. Ultimately by acknowledging Hidden Figures, the Academy has unequivocally stated that race continues to be a pertinent issue in the today’s troubled times.