The Limited Imagination of The Oscars

An exploration of film acting and how the Oscars might need to look at things differently in the future.

In the third section of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Trevante Rhodes’s introductory moments onscreen are staggering. Rhodes’s muscular physique makes the adult Chiron unrecognizable compared to his thin adolescent counterpart, played by Ashton Sanders. And in contrast to the frightened reticence Chiron displayed in his childhood (as embodied by Alex Hibbert), or the tense discomfort of living in his own skin during his high school years, Rhodes’s Chiron commands the spaces in which he travels, whether taking the air out of an employee’s sexual conquests on the way to a drug deal or testing boundaries by staging false accusations of skimming off the side. This continued assertion of toxic masculinity suddenly recedes when Chiron receives a late-night call from Kevin (André Holland), the source of a brief but profound sexual awakening. His words once again become stuck in his mouth, his face pained with the struggle to express outward all that he is experiencing inside.

After seeing Moonlight for a second time, I was struck all the more by the subtleties of Rhodes’s performance, and the complex ways with which his Chriron interacts with Moonlight’s two other manifestations of the character. Rhodes’s Chiron briefly stutters in his aforementioned sportive harangue of an employee ‐ a nuanced revelation of the efforts he makes to be a forceful presence, having transformed his body into a shield that protects his vulnerability. When he tells Kevin, “You’re the only man who ever touched me” ‐ his feet faintly shuffling, his lips hardly trembling, his eyes starting to glisten ‐ you can feel his heart rate accelerating as he makes this quiet confession. Rhodes’s muted Chriron is not simply revisiting his former self, but gradually unmasking a protective notion of himself he has carefully built over years.

Rhodes’s performance is remarkable on its own, but all the more impressive due to the ways it builds upon Moonlight’s other sections. This is a performance in which context augments its meaning, and serves as evidence of a close, trusting collaboration between a director and their cast. As Jenkins has said in recent interviews, he cast the adult versions of Chiron and Kevin first, and focused less on the younger Chirons’ physical resemblance than the potential for the actors’ eyes to communicate words left unsaid. As Jenkins told Film Comment,

“…they never rehearsed together, they never saw any dailies from the other actors…What I was concerned about was, when the camera’s on them and they’re not speaking, how’s this person going to emote? Are they going to try to externalize their emotions, or are we going to just feel the pain beneath the surface? The iceberg theory. They’re all iceberg actors, man.”

While several critics’ organizations around the country have honored Moonlight for its remarkable use of an ensemble for its triptych narrative, performance categories at major awards events like the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards do not exactly have ready means to recognize the interactive work of three performances to manifest one multifaceted character. As Mahershala Ali’s and Naomie Harris’s Golden Globe and Oscar nominations evince, even in “supporting” categories these ceremonies almost invariably maintain a tradition of recognizing single actors playing singular roles. Such is the convention of these awards, which, especially in the leading categories, seem to view the strength of a performance as potentially independent of the quality of a film ‐ e.g., Meryl Streep’s win for The Iron Lady ‐ rather than an important component of the inherently collaborative, selective process of filmmaking.

A Casual Conversation with an Oscar Voter

Indeed, the mismatch between the leading role of a film like Moonlight and major awards’ performance categories speaks to larger issues in the potential for unconventional filmmaking to be more fully recognized by mainstream institutions like AMPAS. Awards norms are largely unfit to recognize certain inventive modes of performance, which in turn can limit our understanding and appreciation of an actor’s work as well as the boundary-pushing efforts of filmmakers working outside of Hollywood convention.

After two consecutive years with zero performers of color being nominated in acting categories and the under-recognition of accomplishments such as Creed and Selma, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign helped pressure AMPAS to rethink who is included and excluded amongst their ranks. The result was one of the most promising nomination rosters in Oscar history and a groundbreaking degree of recognition for persons of color who contribute to cinema both on and off screen.

But celebrating this development uncritically risks overlooking how films by and about persons of color have long persisted outside of commercial, industrial, and institutional norms. In an industry that has a long history of excluding persons of color at all ranks, it should not be surprising that its means of recognizing itself have largely been organized around its own narrative, performance, aesthetic, and technical conventions. Films made by and about people excluded from this industry have had little reason to conform to these standards.

For example, African American independent cinema and independent films that center on African Americans have often played with or challenged boundaries between narrative and fiction, and adapted modes of performance to suit themes, ideas, and approaches to representation not available in mainstream commercial cinema, from the films of William Greaves to Marlon Riggs or through the lenses of Shirley Clarke and Jennie Livingston.

Such boundary-pushing work continued this year with Raoul Peck’s essay film I Am Not Your Negro. The Best Documentary category has long been governed by conservative notions about what nonfiction should be, which makes it all the more remarkable that Peck’s compendium of writer James Baldwin’s insights should find itself a contender this year. A major ingredient to I Am Not Your Negro is Samuel L. Jackson’s widely praised voice-over performance as Baldwin. Taking up more screen time than recordings of Baldwin himself, Jackson’s voice speaks slower and quieter than the Baldwin we know from his public persona, as if he is uttering forbidden words. The actor’s delivery suggests an intimate meeting with Baldwin, a glimpse into life inside Baldwin’s head or amongst his closest confidants, and thus a resurrection of the writer distinct from ‐ but not contradictory to ‐ Baldwin’s public presentation of self.

Unlike Jackson’s voice performances in Ken Burns’s documentaries, this is not a reading of history in quotes. Jackson’s voice is essential to Peck’s effort to make Baldwin’s incisive words resonate loudly in the present, and heralds a departure for an actor regularly hired to speak at a higher volume. Indeed, Peck hired Jackson to “embody” Baldwin “in hushed yet propulsive tones.” As with many actors who play important historical figures, Jackson’ performance is less an imitation than an invocation, a performance built not so much on semblance than through channeling the spirit of a person both as we know him and as he may have known himself. But unlike many, many actors who portray famous historical figures, a performance like Jackson’s certainly has no precedent for being recognized at the Oscars, as no such nomination has occurred for a performer in a nonfiction film.

In including Baldwin’s searing commentary on Hollywood from his vital book of film criticism The Devil Finds Work, I Am Not Your Negroin Andrew Chan’s words ‐ “reimagine[s] cinematic history as a site of racial excavation,” finding in Hollywood a clear illustration of how white America sees itself as well as those who are excluded from it. With regards to Stepin Fetchit and other bigoted archetypes, Jackson’s Baldwin observes, “I did not know anybody like them.” In the face of eternal images of John Wayne killing Native Americans, Jackson’s Baldwin summarizes the broken romance of the American West: “They thought vengeance was theirs to take.” The film’s juxtaposition of The Pajama Game with Jackson/Baldwin’s commentary provides a striking moving image demonstration of Baldwin’s gift for stopping moments in time, stretching them out, and allowing the reader to see things as they are instead of the way they are designed to be seen. Hollywood, for Baldwin and I Am Not Your Negro, has worked in service of how white America would like itself to be seen, and Hollywood’s recognition of the work of African Americans has long taken place within these terms. To recognize films that do not presume this subjectivity, then, places Hollywood in conflict with its categorical limits.

Now that the contributions of persons of color to many aspects of filmmaking are beginning to be recognized by AMPAS, it is important to consider how the categorization practices of awards ceremonies do not easily accommodate works that seek to challenge and expand cinematic norms in both form and content. An inclusive and diverse Oscar ceremony is not only a matter of whose work is recognized, but how to recognize work that exists outside or in between categories of consideration that are rooted in a long-exclusive Hollywood. As one of the most prominent and visible categories of recognition and representation, performance awards put on display both the potential and the hurdles of what it would really mean to make the Oscars more inclusive.

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