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Oscars still #SoWhite, but slowly making progress

Should we expect more of the same for 2017?

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The film industry's biggest night is upon us. After the Grammys, it's hard to think that the Academy Awards will be anymore woke, but is there a silver lining? With Moonlight in the running, will #OscarsSoWhite leak into 2017?

When Beyoncé lost Album, Record and Song of the year to Adele, but Lemonade won for Best Urban Album, it was hard to look at it as just a snub. It would seem the public was ready to make lemonade, and yet we were served lemons. Adele briefly acknowledged this in her shocked acceptance speech, and Sufjan Stevens blasted the Recording Academy as racist in a poignant post on his Tumblr:

Q: WTF is "Urban Contemporary"?

A: It's where the white man puts the incomparable pregnant black woman because he is so threatened by her talent, power, persuasion and potential.

The moment served as painful confirmation that the industry doesn't care for the contributions of black artists, preferring to use them to garner views than actually acknowledge their achievements in a big way. Those who disregard this viewpoint can point to Chance the Rapper's well deserved triple-win, and then there are those, like Stevens, who aren't afraid to point out the racism at play. It brought to mind the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that swept through Twitter last year after the Academy failed to nominate black actors in the top four categories for the second year in a row.

This year's Oscars have nominated more PoC actors than ever: Dev Patel, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and so many others who gave talented performances or contributed to incredible films. Nominations are a step forward, but they're just the Academy saving face if there aren't wins. On music's biggest night, performances by black artists dominated the showcase, and PoC were the only ones to speak up about the current political situation, and yet we had a clean-sweep by Adele. Is the Academy primed to pull another #OscarsSoWhite?

Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar (1940)

Lupita Nyong'o with her Oscar (2014)

Sidney Poitier with his Oscar (1964)

Halle Berry with her Oscar (2002)

Denzel Washington with his Oscar (2002)

It's extremely encouraging to see that Moonlight dominated the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday. It's even more important that, this year, black actors are nominated for powerful roles that do not diminish their power as people: three-dimensional characters, queer characters, powerful women that aren't demoted to maids or the "strong black woman" trope.

Lupita Nyong'o won back in 2014—she played a slave that spent most of the film languishing under white plantation owners. Before her, Mo'Nique won for Precious, where she played an unemployed, abusive mother. The first black Oscar winner was Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and the first black actress to win Best Actress was Halle Berry for Monster's Ball, where she's told, at one point, that the only reason she's with one of the characters is because he enjoys sex with black women. How can the Academy promote black excellence when they award roles that show black people in the very stereotypes that have diminished them in the eyes of society? How can the organizations that run our culture at large call themselves progressive when the last time a black woman won album of the year was over a decade ago?

Looking at the undertones of these big ceremonies that matter so much and, in the end, are run by a predominantly white panel at the top makes it almost naive to keep hope alive. We can only hope a winner glimmers under the California moonlight, under the red carpet's blinding spotlight.

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