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Is There Room For Only One Black Film At The Top Of The Heap?

Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated in the category of best actor for his role in <em>12 Years a Slave</em> as the 86th Academy Awards nominations are announced Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated in the category of best actor for his role in 12 Years a Slave as the 86th Academy Awards nominations are announced Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif.

First, let's acknowledge one thing: 12 Years a Slave has achieved something amazing and wonderful.

With nine Oscar nominations, it has proven a brutal story about the worst degradations of American slavery can attract the biggest accolades Hollywood has to offer.

In particular, seeing Steve McQueen within spitting distance of becoming the first black person to win an Oscar for directing, you feel both a sense of progress for the moment and profound disappointment that such a benchmark would remain untouched in 2014. (That feeling persists for Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican director poised to make a similar achievement for Latinos).

But, as wonderful as it is to see the film's top acting and production talent rewarded for a bracing and informative work, it's worth noting that 2014 was a banner year for films about nonwhite people.

So you wonder if the success of 12 Years a Slave will prove another sad truism about Hollywood: that there's room for only one black film at the top of the heap.

Thanks to high-profile stars Oprah Winfrey and Forrest Whitaker, many have noted that their poignant film about a black White House servant, Lee Daniels' The Butler, got no nominations. But 42, the film about Jackie Robinson's fight to integrate baseball, didn't get any Oscar love, either. The only nomination for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was for the song provided by Irish rockers U2. Fruitvale Station, the bracing look at a young black man killed by police, got nothing, either.

Even the year's biggest box office bomb, the awful update of The Lone Ranger, got some lower-profile nominations.

This is the challenge Hollywood faces in its own long walk toward greater diversity. The pressure is on to prove that 12 Years a Slave isn't the end of a trend, but the beginning. Instead of assuring the film industry that everything's just fine on the diversity front, we all should wonder why there is only one film, one or two actors, one director who gets such magnificent attention.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan notes that this is a time of transition for the film industry. Film legends Tom Hanks and Robert Redford got snubbed, too — even as Hanks' Somali-American co-star Barkhad Abdi was nominated as a supporting actor in Captain Phillips.

I won't go so far as to endorse the #notbuyingit hashtag created by those who remain disappointed that they haven't seen more diversity in top Hollywood awards contests (though it was fun to see critics have to rip up their "12 Years a Slave Got Snubbed" columns when the Golden Globes handed the film a best drama honor as its final award Sunday).

But I will suggest a different tag: #itsjustthebeginning. Because when you let people of color squeeze in the door, the job isn't complete until that entryway has been flung wide open.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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