by Eulàlia Iglesias
The nominees (or non-nominees) to the next edition of the Oscars reveal a renaissance of African American film just at the dawn of the Obama era.
In 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary, in which she traces a continuous line between slavery and the US penitentiary system, The Birth of a Nation is quoted as one of the blueprints of the construction of a stigmatising story that identifies African Americans as suspected criminals. According to the film’s thesis, the amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery let an open crack through which to maintain it in the form of prison hard labour. Thus, free African Americans could be used again as a free work force as long as they were declared outlaws. The foundational film of classical narrative and one of the first blockbusters in history fixed in a determined way the image of the young African American as a threat and danger for white society.
DuVernay’s documentary is one of the five Oscar-nominees in an edition in which three of the five feature films in this category focus on racial issues, the other two being Ezra Edelman’s television magnum opus OJ: Made in America, a key title to understand the contemporary United States, and I Am Not Your Negro, a homage that Raoul Peck pays to the legacy of James Baldwin. Nevertheless, the film that was first destined to compensate the #OscarSoWhite of the previous edition was precisely Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that advocates, right from its title, to a racial counter-reading of the D.W. Griffith classic. Parker retrieves a topic Hollywood films have always ignored or merely dealt with superficially and shows the sadism of white slavers towards their victims through scenes that are literally unbearable to see. But the director, and also main protagonist, serves at the end of the film the typical epic tale at the service of an illuminated and messianic hero. His film fits perfectly the most topical conventions of the classical story consolidated by Griffith that Parker supposedly tried to subvert. Even the final blood bath, the explosion of which can be sensed all throughout the film, ends up being, and please excuse us Mr Spike Lee, a lot less cathartic and furious than Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
The alternative to The Birth of a Nation that Hollywood found after Parker’s career towards the Oscars was stained by an extra-cinematographic affair that linked him to a case of violence against women is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. It’s a less bold and sublime work than what they are trying to sell us, but at least it tries to put an end, from a queer perspective and using the aesthetic postulates of indie films, to certain imagery around African American masculinity. Also as conventional as one could expect is Theodor Melfi’s Hidden Figures, a vindication of the black female scientists who contributed to the US space programme. Like The Help, Hidden Figures responds to the kind of film trying to portray racism without making white audiences feel uneasy. In the movie’s most significant scene, the protagonist played by Octavia Spencer, Dorothy, starts a conversation with her white supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, in the now common restrooms after their bosses have abolished racial segregation at NASA. The supervisor assures her that, “no matter what you think, I have nothing against you,” and Dorothy replies, “I’m convinced that’s what you think.” This reproach towards the so many whites that banally adhere to structural racism without feeling racist themselves becomes pointless when the white characters chosen for the audience to identify with, John Glenn and the boss played by Kevin Costner, are portrayed as allies to African American struggle. The success of Hidden figures contrasts with the discreet reception of a much more interesting film, Loving, in which Jeff Nichols inscribes without making a fuss a blueprint of the fight for civil rights in an imagined deep America, solemn and popular, that is becoming more and more difficult to find in US cinema. With its achievements and contradictions, these and other films try to fill a certain cinematographic void from and about African American imaginary. About that, about the need of an art form to mirror your own experiences, talks Michelle and Obama, the interesting romantic comedy in which Richard Tanne freely reconstructs the first date between the ex-president of the United States and his now wife. In their first day together, Barack and Michelle go to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a true landmark, and this is really true, they did. Paradoxically, Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, a spirited revision of Lysistrata taking place in today’s Chicago, produced by Amazon, has not lasted too long on the commercial cinema circuit, and even less so outside its country. These are the contradictions of African American films appearing right at the dawn of the Barack Obama mandate.