(It’s Oscar season again. And as I wrote last year there is a lot Tyler Perry, who has never won an Oscar, can teach us about Black Hollywood & White Hollywood Awards.)
Regardless of what you think of his movies, I’d be willing to bet Tyler Perry gives not one damn about his lack of Oscar wins. Because he stays winning in the areas where winning really matters. It also helps that he has the one thing every Black working person wants: autonomy. The ability to create the art he wants, when he wants, in the language and voice he wants, exactly how he wants to create it. There’s not a single Black Oscar winner who holds as much power as Tyler Perry.
There aren’t many Oscar winners of any race who can control their own destiny as well as Perry can. (This was true in 2015 when I first wrote this piece and it’s still true today.)
“Perry’s profitability places him in exclusive space as a cinematic artist who can freely choose his content, themes and actors without conforming to Hollywood’s obtrusive prescriptions for economic viability. This is a development with great sociological relevance: a black Southern folk-religious filmmaker enjoying unprecedented freedom and power to produce movies….”
Perry doesn’t need to wait on Hollywood studios to green light his projects. Because he has his own studio. Perry doesn’t have to wait on someone to “discover,” “value,” or “recognize” his talent. He honed his craft for years in front the eyes of the only “Academy” voters that mattered to him: Black viewers. He took his art straight to his target market: Black audiences. And he’s been winning ever since.
Again…there’s not a single Black Academy Award (or any other Hollywood award) winner who can boast that type of power. We’d do well to remember the power of Perry’s business model and use it in every facet of Black business development. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Yes, the Academy Awards were as White as predicted and no one was surprised. After all, the Academy in particular and Hollywood in general, are organizations governed by the values of white supremacy. Meaning, they promote, value and reward stories centered on White people, White families, White culture and White issues above and beyond those centered on the same for other people.
That is, after all, the essence of white supremacy: believing that Whiteness, White people, their characteristics, their stories, their values, i.e. the things that make them White, are just better. Better than everyone else’s. And few places perform White supremacy better than institutions designed to celebrate White accomplishments.
Like the Academy.
We all knew it was coming, especially after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite almost broke twitter (according to Forbes.com, it was retweeted at a rate of 95,000 tweets per hour). Created by attorney, blogger and social media professional April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite shone an honest and unforgiving spotlight on the fact that this year’s Oscars were the Whitest in a really long time. This sea of whiteness was even more “offensive” in light of Ava Duvernay’s masterful depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (brilliantly portrayed by actor David Oyelowo) and the civil rights struggle in the movie Selma. This masterpiece was nearly ignored completely.
Except for its award winning song Glory, by John Legend and Common. Because Black people singing for White people will always be rewarded Singing Black person is one of the roles white supremacy is very comfortable with.
Roles depicting subservient negroes, singing negroes, oversexed negroes or brutish negroes will always be applauded by the Academy. These types of roles were created to support plantation slavery and colonization and used to make White people who benefit from slavery and colonization more comfortable with the evil of those institutions. These roles make White people feel comfortable because choosing to only see Black people in subservient, singing, spiritual sexualized or beastly roles is part of what white supremacy needs in order to sleep well at night.
In fact, you can bet your last dollar that if there is a movie with a Black person connected to it and that Black person is nominated for and actually wins an Oscar, the role was likely a maid (subservient negroes like Octavia Spencer in The Help), some sort of brute (evil negroes like Denzel as a bad cop in Training Day), overly sexualized (jezebel negroes like Halle Berry in Monsters Ball) or otherwise fulfilling some stereotypical image of Blackness (spiritual negroes like Whoopi Goldberg as a fraudulent psychic in Ghost).
This image circulating on social media tells the story better than 10,000 words could.
Now does this mean these actors weren’t deserving? Absolutely not. In fact, these and other Black performances were brilliant. It does mean, however, that you can be completely brilliant in every way…but you’re brilliant performance won’t be recognized by institutions like the Academy unless it falls into a stereotypical role that makes White people comfortable.
Denzel Washington was phenomenal in his portrayal as Malcolm X. So much so that when many people see the film, they forget that Denzel is not actually Malcolm X. But no matter how perfectly Denzel executed that role, he “earned” an Oscar for his portrayal of a dirty cop.
See how that works?
But Do the Oscars Really Matter?
After the release of the names of the Whitest slate of actors ever Oscar nominees, Black social media broke out into the typical debates. #TeamDiversifyOscar claimed that more work needed to be done to diversify the voters in the Academy. #TeamBlackFolksDon’tNeedOscar declared Black actors who care about winning Oscars are really only seeking White validation and they should have “expected” to be shut out of the awards because…racism.
Both sides are partially correct—and incomplete. Dangerously so.
As I said on Twitter, as an actor, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be honored and recognized for your craft. An Academy award is usually considered the ultimate gold star in Hollywood. It’s like attaining one of the highest honors in whatever career you desire and spend a lifetime working towards.
Supposedly, winning an Oscar will add power and prestige to your resume. Taking home that golden statue is supposed to mean you get to call your own shots, you get to pick your own projects and command a higher salary. In essence winning an Oscar is supposed to place you in a position of power…almost as awesome as the kind Tyler Perry enjoys. Almost.
And if you’re a White, male, Academy award winner, all of that may actually be true. As noted at Forbes,
“The honors thesis of a student at Colgate looked at the earning power of actors and actresses in the years before and after their Oscar wins, and found that male actors experience an 81% bump in salary after nabbing an Oscar…”
Now an 81% increase in earnings is something nearly anyone would want as a reward for hard work. But not everyone is rewarded the same way. The benefits are not nearly as clear for women in Hollywood:
“…actresses see almost no financial benefit following a win. In fact, their careers may even take a bit of a dive after bringing home a statuette.”
And when you look at the post Academy award wins for Black Hollywood…well we just have no reason to think that Black folks benefit the same way (if at all) from their Oscar wins. In fact, there’s not a single Black Academy Award winning actor whose Oscar win placed them anywhere near the position of independence and power that someone like Tyler Perry enjoys, let alone an 81% increase in pay.
Not even our beloved Denzel Washington. As we learned during the Sony Leaks (thanks again for those leaking those emails North Korea!), not even Denzel can get the respect he deserves once White Hollywood goes behind closed doors and sends emails telling each other what they really think.
When we look at the post Academy award wins of Black Hollywood, we rarely see the same (if any) boost that White Hollywood gets.
When interviewed by Terri Gross for NPR during movie nomination season, Ava Duvernay made it clear that Award Winning Black Hollywood most certainly does not enjoy the same types of benefits as Academy Award Winning White Hollywood. Their exchange went like this:
GROSS: Where do you go next? Do you want to – I mean, you’re going to have a lot more clout now as a film director. …
DUVERNAY: You know, [there’s] no precedent for there being a black woman director who’s gained any clout. Black woman directors that make amazing, beautiful things – yes, I can name 50. Black women directors that have obtained that kind of clout to be able to kind of answer that question from a place of the privilege of having lots of options – I’m not so sure. We’ll see. It’d be nice, but regardless, I’m going to keep on telling my stories. I’d be absolutely happy to go back and make a smaller picture.
Take a look at that picture again. Did you notice the post-Oscar win mega shift in power that these Black actors experienced? Yeah. They didn’t either. Jennifer Hudson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Octavia Spencer all had wins at the Academy. But neither of those wins resulted in any tangible increase in power for those actors.
What Black Professionals &
Black Hollywood Have In Common
Here’s the thing: the formulas laid out for White career success do not apply to Black people pursuing careers in White spaces. In any profession. Ask any high achieving Black professional (when they’re being honest) and they will tell you that they work three times as hard to get a quarter of the respect that their White colleagues get just for showing up at the job. Whether you’re a Black partner in a law firm, a Black business leader or even a Black president of a country like America, you will not receive anything close to the same amount of respect or power in the White working world that your White colleagues and predecessors will receive for doing less than you.
Ask President Obama. He is actually a perfect example of what it looks like when a Black person achieves the highest “office” in a profession—and gets none of the respect reserved for that position. He’s continually disrespected by the White establishment and constantly has to stay a few steps ahead of them just to tread water. Much like most Black professionals trying to stay afloat in White working establishments all across this nation.
Not winning an Oscar, let alone not being nominated for one, when you’ve clearly outshone your competition must hurt much like it would hurt to be passed over for a promotion you clearly deserved. It probably hurts like the hurt you feel when you train young White colleagues who end up being your boss. As a Black actor, not seeing anyone who looks like you win an Oscar in decades, might feel much like the rest of us feel in our predominantly White jobs when we realize that no matter how hard we try, there’s just no room for us at this inn.
This is why I love Tyler Perry’s business model. He knew he couldn’t build his own empire and stay true to his voice and his audience so long as he was trying to please the White Hollywood Gods. So he made White Hollywood a non-factor. Or in the words of Evelyn from Basketball wives “a non-mutha-effin-factor.”
Back To Tyler Perry
So we know the following things are true:
- Academy Award wins become more likely the more closely a Black actor assumes a role that makes White supremacy comfortable.
- An Academy win for a Black actor doesn’t seem to translate into an increase in power or prestige.
So…what good is it?
Here’s where the Tyler Perry model begins to make sense. Why should our best and brightest (of any industry, Hollywood or otherwise), have to degrade themselves and fulfill racist White stereotypes in order to succeed? Why should Black professionals have the trajectory of their careers determined by how well they learn the skill set of making our White colleagues comfortable around us and our Blackness? Why should we have to leave our culture at the door in order to assimilate for 9 hours a day into a system that doesn’t really want us there anyway?
The answer is simply this (drum roll please): We don’t have to do that. We don’t have to do any of that.
We don’t have to lower ourselves just to take roles that make White people feel comfortable. We don’t have to take the Blackness out of our voices at work just to make sure we don’t become too dominant. We don’t have stop sticking up for ourselves out of fear of being labeled the “angry” Black person. We don’t have to train unqualified White colleagues who then become our bosses. We don’t have to do it.
Unless we choose to.
Because like Tyler Perry we can create our own reality. If you’re smart enough to train your own boss, your smart enough to figure out how to start your own company. If you have to be three times as good as your White colleagues in order to have a seat a their table, you’re smart enough to grow your own food and set your own table.
What Tyler Perry’s business model teaches us is that we can spend lifetimes trying to fit our stories, our desires, our ideas, our greatness into the small, uncomfortable boxes that white supremacy tries to squeeze us into. Or we can create our own spaces where we don’t need their boxes at all.
Now, is it easy to do what Perry did? No. Not at all. Anyone familiar with his story knows that the struggle he endured early on was extraordinarily challenging. But by frontloading the difficulty of creating an empire in the beginning of his career, he is now able to do what all emperors do: rule his kingdom.
So the choice is really up to us. Are you waiting for an “Oscar” in your own career? Or are you doing what it takes to meet the needs of your own community and as a result come out on top? Whatever you decide, just know that you don’t have to wait for the “Academy” to see you first. If you do it right, you too can render the Academy a non-mutha-effin-factor.