Wakanda Forever: A Sea Change in Representation at the Oscars

Sea change. /ˈsē ˌCHānj/ Noun. a marked change or a transformation.

Originally, the phrase was used to describe “a change brought about by sea.” Both definitions aptly define what we are seeing the beginnings of in our society. Particularly with regard to representation across industries.

In the film industry, for example, each New Year brings a fresh Award Season to get excited about. We tune in to see who’s wearing what, who wins big, who gets snubbed, and who says the right (or wrong) thing in their acceptance speech. Next up on the agenda for the Season is the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24th. By this point in the Season, my attention span for award shows tends to slow down. But this year, I’m ready – ecstatic, even – because there seems to be a sea change occurring regarding the types of films, actors and directors that have received nods this year. Looking at the nominations for Best Picture (“Black Panther,” “Roma,” “The Favourite,” BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “A Star is Born,” “Vice” and “Green Book”), it is clear that the Academy is in a moment of transformation.

But, as we all know, a sea change does not happen overnight. For the Academy Awards, this change was brought on by the “sea” of public opinion. As a black woman, I’ve watched these award shows, disappointed in knowing from several years of viewing that most, if not all, nominees would be white. And this is an awards show that airs during Black History Month, so the lack of people of color receiving nominations has been particularly glaring. By January 2015, enough was enough, and it was time to do something about it. BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign created the trending Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to shine a light on the issue, and communities of color took the conversation mainstream.

Fast forward to 2018. April Reign gets real with CNN’s #Get Political[1] on Oscars progress made and work that still needed to be done. When asked if moments such as Jordan Peele’s nomination for best director (he ultimately made history as first African-American Original Screenplay Winner, by the way) was encouraging, she had this to say: Let’s be honest. We have some record nominations this year for the black community, but the fact that we are still talking about firsts in 2018 means there’s a lot more that needs to be done in our community, as well.”

Reign also struck a chord with regard to who is accountable for representation in film and the stereotypical roles typically afforded to black actors and actresses. On accountability, Reign said, “We could not have expected to see overnight change because the onus is truly on Hollywood. The Academy can only nominate films that are made, so it really depends on Hollywood filmmakers, and those who have the ability to green-light films, to step out of their comfort zone and allow more people from marginalized communities to tell their stories.” On stereotypical black roles, she noted that what we have often seen in films are the “…stereotypical tropes that people of color and people of marginalized communities are expected to play.” “So, for example, how many more slave movies do we need?,” she quipped. “You know, we’ve had ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Django’ and ‘Birth of a Nation,’ and ‘Roots’ and so many others, but there’s so much more to the black experience than what happened in the 1700s and 1800s.”

Enter “Black Panther” – the first Marvel black superhero movie (you didn’t forget about “Blade”, did you?). With a predominantly black cast. Set around the world, but particularly showcasing Africa in a spectacular light. Take that in; sit with it. There are a lot of powerful elements there. Given that, it is no surprise that the movie ignited world-wide excitement, Black pride, and so many “Wakanda Forever” gestures that even Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played T’Challa, couldn’t hide his feeling of “enough already” after only a few months post-launch.

For me, my family, my friends, and particularly the beautiful black children in my life, “Black Panther” offered so much: representation; a spectacular display of black excellence via deep skin tones, African hairstyles, African clothing, and African dialects; a view of the richness of Africa, the home of our ancestors; and a reminder of the knowledge, customs, moral lessons and overall magic we were born from. My eight-year-old nephew went trick-or-treating dressed as the Black Panther, as I’m sure many other young boys did. He even made me and my family members wear Black Panther shirts so we could “match” him. He felt proud to dress up as a king and a superhero, someone who looks like him, and to have a positive black male role model to look up to. And I was proud to stand beside him, wearing that shirt, because I knew that because of this movie, he had a chance to believe he could be or achieve anything. That his life would not be limited to the kind of stereotypical tropes I used to believe were the only possibilities for black people.

diversity in film - de&i - black panther

Reign, in her own way, agrees. When asked what the success of Black Panther tells us, she said the movie “…is a fantastic example of what can happen when studios give the green light to show richly developed characters in all of their glory, fully formed and realized people on screen.” What’s more, she said, the numbers the movie pulled in at the box office show that “people want to see more of that.”

Filmmakers and the studios that finance film projects will need to meet the “sea” of public demand for rich stories with characters played by all people of color, including Black people. This transformation will take time, yes, but Reign notes that “…until we have more representation of all marginalized communities, #OscarsSoWhite is not finished.” And representation for all is the change we all want to see.

[1] Zaru, Deena. #OscarsSoWhite founder on the movement’s next frontier. CNN.com. 4 March 2018.