Every Academy Award season brings up the same questions in the Black community. “Why don’t they nominate or give an award to someone Black?” “How come they’re always giving us awards for playing slaves?” These are all valid points in a redundant discussion, although 2015 makes things slightly different, thanks to the colorful addition of the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
People angrily posted concern about how all 20 actors nominated this year are Caucasian. Others tweeted frustration over the lack of nominations for Selma writer/director Ava DuVernay and its star, David Oyelowo. The problem is that this wave of resounding disapproval drowned out the applause for a forgotten film. One made expressly for Black people, starring nearly all Black people, written and directed by a Black woman: Beyond the Lights, which managed to score an Oscar nomination as well.
Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood will proudly attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony to represent her film’s little-known nomination for Best Original Song thanks to the Diane Warren-written, Rita Ora-performed “Grateful.” But this isn’t the first time the spotlight of Beyond the Lights has been dimmed in the shadow of Selma’s Oprah-approved, supernova glow. At this year’s NAACP Image Awards, Bythewood’s movie garnered four nominations— Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director. Beyond the Lights won nothing while Selma dominated, taking home four trophies.
Sitting in a chair at New York’s WBLS, Bythewood sucks her teeth when thinking about the loss. Like a typical athlete, having played basketball and run track, she’s naturally competitive. And like the typical parent, she believes her baby (in this situation, her movie and everything about it) is the best.
“I got to be honest and say Gugu [Mbatha-Raw’s] performance was ridiculous, and was so championed by journalists,” she begins. “And the fact that she did Belle in the same year. Two performances that were 180 degrees from each other; incredible chops. Any other actress would have been exalted. And the fact that she didn’t get nominated still drives me nuts,” says Prince-Bythewood, shaking her head about the Oscar fiasco.
“The thing is, last year was such a great year,” she continues. “You felt like there was a breakthrough. This year, I don’t know what happened. Because David playing Dr. King was a phenomenal performance. Gugu gave a phenomenal performance. I don’t know what happened. It’s disheartening to see there are no writers or directors of color nominated. It’s going to be very easy to find me at the Oscars and to find Oprah.”
It’s always easy to find the Black faces at a Hollywood function. Standing out like raisins in milk, often in the same vicinity, those who’ve found success typically gain a sense of commonality and support by sticking together. It’s like the Black student union at the predominantly White college where people of color are forced to segregate to stay motivated and positive in the face of micro-aggressions.
Most media-connected L.A. folk know the truth. It often takes years to get a “Black film” made. And if one does make it to Tinseltown “It” status, plays the game properly, and gains the buzz of possibly accessorizing a black tux or flowing gown with a glistening golden Oscar trophy, the probability of winning that statue for a “certain type” of Black role runs higher.
“It is true,” says Prince-Bythewood of the Academy Awards’ history of awarding Black actors in demeaning or powerless roles. “If you look at what gets nominated both for male or female roles, it’s a subservient or negative character. And that’s not to take away from the performances and the people who have been nominated and won. They gave phenomenal performances. But Denzel not getting nominated for Malcolm X? That was a transcending performance. David [Oyelowo] as Dr. King. And Gugu is playing a woman who goes on a journey and finds herself. She’s not a prostitute. She’s not getting beaten. So it’s obvious. It’s out there.
“So the key is for us as Black filmmakers to try and continue to push our narrative and put work out there that’s at a high level, that’s positive. But positive doesn’t mean soft. It doesn’t mean perfect. It just means real.”
It’s Prince-Bythewood’s tendency to keep it real that finds her making a film every six to eight years. Each one has featured Blacks in leading roles. And nearly all (with the exception of 2000’s Disappearing Acts, based on the bestselling Terry McMillan novel) have been written and directed by Bythewood. “When you write and direct, it’s just all your vision,” says the UCLA graduate. “And also there’s just so many stories in my head that I need to get out. Honestly, it’s not an ego thing. I just have stories to tell.”
Prince-Bythewood’s most popular film, 2000’s Love & Basketball, still makes the Internet buzz with sequel gossip yearning to see Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps back on screen together. The Secret Life of Bees from 2008 garnered acclaim starring Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Dakota Fanning.
Beyond the Lights, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, tells the story of a pop star who considers suicide until she finds self-love and eventually the love of a good Black man. But please don’t put her work in the “Black film” box.
“It’s really about Hollywood,” she clarifies. “Hollywood uses the term ‘Black film’ to describe any film that has a Black person in it. So for them, 12 Years a Slave is the same as Think like a Man, which they’re not. Black film is not a genre. A period piece is a genre. Comedy is a genre. Love stories. So [the Black film label] is just a way for Hollywood put us in a box and market us the same way, release us the same way. And it’s maddening, because the Black audience is not a monolith. We don’t all like the same things.
“I would never want someone to go see my film, just because there are Black folks in it,” she continues. “I want them to see it because it’s a good film. But the reality is, if people don’t support films with us in them, they’re not going to get made. The reality is that Hollywood supports what makes money. And there are filmmakers out there. Chris Rock in Top Five, it was so smart and funny. Why didn’t we go out and support it? I don’t get it. So we have to go out and support films. Beyond the Lights, I made it for us. Fought very hard to put two people of color in leads so we can have a Black love story up on screen.
“It was important for me that it had people of color in it. That was my goal. But ultimately I wanted it to be a universal story. Because it’s important for us as a community to see ourselves in love. But it’s also so important for the world to see this as well, because there’s such a negative perception of us in the world and this fallacy that we don’t love each other. That we don’t fight for each other. So that’s my hope for my films: that people can go see it and see something to aspire to. But also change the perception and see our humanity.”
Yes, Prince-Bythewood is an activist. Using her work to make change, she considers herself a feminist who preferred an all-female sets for Beyond the Lights. “My [director of photography] is female. My editor, production designer, costume, hair makeup. As a female director, I know how hard it was for me to get that first job and be taken seriously. And so I think it’s my responsibility to find that talent because there is that talent out there. Talent has no gender. So I think it’s my job to give that opportunity.
“Also, the nature of Beyond the Lights and what Gugu had to put out there as an actress, I wanted her to have a maternal vibe on set,” says Prince-Bythewood, whose next project is a pilot with Imagine and Fox dealing with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“And I hope that I can be an activist through my work. I love making movies. It’s the only thing I want to do. I want to entertain. But I would never make a film that doesn’t have something to say. I think we have an opportunity to have a platform and have a voice. We’ve got to use it in a positive way. I hope that all my films speak to somebody in a positive way. And I hope that all my films speak to somebody in some sort of way.”
Beyond the Lights hits DVD, Amazon Digital and iTunes on February 24.
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality and activist. Her debut novel, The Man Curse, will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015.