How far has this awards season come from awards seasons past? While the last few years have been hard for the film industry in general because of the pandemic, 2022 seems to be something of a tipping point for African diaspora filmmaking. This year Sub-Saharan Africa has six submissions at the Oscars. Margaret Brown’s “Descendant,” a nonfiction account of the last known slave ship, is receiving critical buzz at Sundance. Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis are being talked about in consideration for Best Actor and Actress nominations, respectively, for “King Richard.” Jeymes Samuel of “The Harder They Fall'” is one of this year’s breakout directors. And “Respect” could land nominations for Jennifer Hudson as well as director Liesl Tommy, who, if that were to happen, would be only the second Black woman to direct a Black leading actor or actress to an Oscar nomination.
And there is more good news in diaspora content, The Golden Globes, a historically insidious organization allegedly representing the foreign press, has been discredited to the point that it will no longer air on network television. It is also worth noting that the SVOD revenue in Sub- Saharan Africa was about $107 million in 2021 despite the pandemic. Digital TV Research forecasts 15.06 million paying SVOD subscriptions in Africa by 2026, triple from the 5.11 million that was expected at end of 2021. Here we are, deep into the aorta of the awards season, which also happens to be at the cusp of the Black History Month. Diversity is up trending in the film industry, for sure, but the headwinds against such change are mighty. It has been several weeks since Sidney Poitier passed away and 58 years since he won his historic 1964 Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field, making him the first African American to win the title. That it took 38 years for the second African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor speaks to the strength of the headwinds that we fight against.
The pendulum swings. It has been seven years since the #OscarssoWhite hashtag went viral after not a single non-white actor in any of the four major awards acting categories was nominated. The year was 2015, the Academy membership was 92% white and 75% male, but things are better now. The dramatic 2016 rule changes to Academy membership, driven by that social media outrage, have done much to alter The Los Angeles Times’ conclusion, at the time, that the average member of the group was a 63-year old white man.
So how much better is it now? Clearly a 63-year-old white man – no matter how woke – is going to miss the breakout performances by Black performers in smaller budget films. He is not going to search them out, particularly, rather he is going to see and reward the films closer to his life experience. The 38-year chasm between Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance and Denzel Washington’s proves the point precisely. April Reign, who created #OscarssoWhite in 2015, breaks down the problem, then – as well as now. “I believe in a meritocracy; cast a wide net, nominate the most talented and most qualified individuals, and the best person should win,” wrote Reign, in Variety in 2020. Ideally, of course. “But if you aren’t viewing the films,” she concludes, “then you cannot be sure that you have actually seen the most talented and qualified.” Hence the need for more diversity.
Traditionally, it is the Oscars that give films the highest visibility, even films that are nominated and don’t win benefit from the rising tide that is the Oscars. The Oscar bounce is the boost that films get at the box office from Academy Award nominations. When films coming out of the African diaspora were not getting nominated (and are still, even in this day and age, having trouble getting there) they are literally forfeiting bank. Further, according to the recent influential McKinsey report on The Black Experience in the US private sector (February 2021), emerging Black actors receive significantly fewer early career chances to land leading roles, compared with white actors. “The data shows that films with a Black producer (only 8 percent of all US-produced films) or a Black director (6 percent of all films) are significantly more likely to have a Black writer. And if a film’s producer is Black, the film is far more likely to have a Black director, too,” the McKinsey Report says. “The same holds true in TV,” the report adds. This makes sense. It is not enough to have diverse performers in front of the camera, but also behind. Another alarming finding from the report — Out of all show runners on television, only 5 percent are Black.
How about the streaming sites? Do content creators coming out of the African diaspora have a better chance in the age of streaming? African filmmakers are apparently having a moment with streaming sites. Netflix, though, has been a mixed bag for filmmakers from the African diaspora. For example, the multibillion dollar streaming entertainment company with 222 million subscribers gifted film and TV students in the Sub-Saharan Africa region a $1 million scholarship. While that is not a large amount of money for a company that has global revenues in the billions, it is an initial investment cognizant of growth. “In North America, about 50 percent of households have a Netflix subscription, a figure that’s pretty stable,” Tony Maroulis, principal analyst for London-based Ampere Analysis, told The Hollywood Reporter. “In Western Europe, penetration is just under a third. In South America, just over a quarter. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s less than 1 percent. So, there’s lots of room for growth.” Nigerian TV pioneer Mo Abudu further adds “The reality of the marketplace has changed…If streamers want those global subscribers, if they want our money, they have to provide the content that this changing world wants” suggesting that there’s sound opportunity for investment, beyond a million dollars in Sub-Saharan scholarships worth in the future.
Genevieve Nnajis “Lionheart“,the first Nigerian film to be submitted to the Academy disqualified by Oscar, Story by African Glitz TV
Much is made of how streaming services have increased diverse content to boost subscribers. Netflix, again, can do better. For example, one question being asked now continent-wide is, “is Netflix helping Nollywood?” Nollywood, a home-grown African industry, provides content unlike anywhere else in the world. Netflix really could have been so much better as a platform in connecting members of the African diaspora, who number in the tens to hundreds of millions, searching for good content from home wherever they are. Nollywood is famous for pursuing broad commercial viability over aesthetic or even artistic goals. Netflix – or even, recently, Amazon Studios – which have their brands built on artistic integrity, could help Nollywood produce a higher quality cinema. It is a natural alliance. For that matter, so could Chinese studios, who are slowly dipping their toes into Nollywood collaboration. The verdict, however, is still out as to whether or not that is even among the goals of their collaboration.
The afore-mentioned headwinds afflict television as well. “All the top 10 cable scripted shows for Black households in 2019-20 had casts that were at least 21 percent minority, matching the number of shows from a season earlier,” says the Hollywood Diversity Report, 2021. “Nine of the top shows for Black households appeared on either OWN or BET, the Black-themed cable networks whose shows are absent from the top 10 lists for other groups.” This leads us to the age-old conclusion to the slow pace of social change – for us, by us. For us, by us argues that the best way to accelerate diversity is to start our own networks, our own pipelines, maybe even our own awards.
Should people of African descent create their own film awards? We already have some well-established ones; The BET Awards and NAACP Image Awards already have a significant social media strength on their own, with influencers and hashtags built in. And the African American Film Critics’ Awards, which this year will take place on March 3rd, do a wonderful job highlighting the best artistic works coming from the African diaspora. The AAFC, in particular, needs to be amplified as an organization that consistently looks for and rewards the best in diaspora-related content. The only problem is, all of these awards are not speaking to a wider audience (at least not yet), which brings us right back to the Oscars.
We have come a long way from when Hattie McDaniel became the first Black to win an Oscar, in 1939. She was seated at the back of the venue in a segregated area even as she won the most prestigious film award for Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind, to date, the highest-grossing film at the global box office (inflation included). McDaniel had typecast her entire career as a sassy maid, one of the few stereotypes that African American actors were allowed to portray on the screen during those times. Today the Academy is in the process of representing the film industry of the present, not the film industry of the days of segregated awards ceremonies. The Academy has met its 2020 goal, and is now pulling back on new member invites. At the time of the #OscarssoWhite controversy, Academy membership was about 25 percent women, and as of 2020 it was 33 percent. People from communities of color grew in that time from 10 to 19 percent. There is still work to do though. There will always be more work to do. Oscar’s still very white but getting beiger by the year.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair