The pessimistic message of #OscarsSoWhite campaign

Story highlights

  • John McWhorter: Problem of #OscarsSoWhite real, but its annual rallying cry fails to note the huge gains of blacks in Hollywood
  • He says its reflexive pessimism implies that celebrating success is racially inauthentic, that soul of blackness is frustration and failure
  • He says he rejects that, and the rest of America should, too

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The #OscarSoWhite controversy is, in itself, necessary. It is sadly unremarkable that a body of mostly older and white people in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by failing to nominate people of color in the top acting categories, showed that it does not see black performances with the same eyes as a more diverse group would. This is something that must be fixed.

John McWhorter
However, especially during this Black History Month, we might also put this into perspective. Just think: We are protesting that black people don't get enough Oscar nominations! Just 30 years ago that would have sounded like science fiction.
Before the 1980s, one could catch pretty much every black film, and any major black performance in a white one. That stopped being possible in the early '90s. Today, only an obsessive could catch the entirety of black film performance on screens (to say nothing of direction and writing).
That is neither historical trivia nor the proverbial one step forward, two steps back. When it comes to Hollywood, it's as if black people started with barely any clothes, but today have gotten to the point of being decked out in lush finery, and now just wish people would pay more attention. It's a legitimate wish. But on this, it's not just that we have "gone a long way but have a long way to go."
Sometimes you have to admit you're almost there.

Oscar's blind spot

To be sure, the Oscar voters have had a blind spot. If "Straight Outta Compton" were about white street toughs and introduced a slate of vibrant young white actors on the order of, say, "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul, it's reasonable to imagine at least a couple of them nominated for, and perhaps winning, Oscars.
That it isn't the case recalls a similar blindness only 20 years ago, when Jim Carrey was chattered about as a major thespian for his transformations into assorted crazy characters, while Eddie Murphy, pulling off a half dozen subtly portrayed and utterly distinct people in the Nutty Professor movies, was considered just passingly amusing.
Even so, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy is being conducted with the same fury, sarcasm and doom-saying of yesteryear's complaints that black people had a hard time getting cast in decent movies at all. It's as if it's always the same old, same old and all that changes is surfaces. This is typical of a dominant strain in smart writing on black film -- an almost recreational pessimism, as if the goal itself is to be indignant regardless of reality.
I'm exaggerating? The recent past suggests not. A black film executive in 2005 says "I don't think much has changed for black films. ...They still think that we're monolithic, and mostly the films are limited to urban themes and comedy." Cue the applause, right? But that year, "Hitch," "Guess Who?" "Coach Carter," "Are We There Yet?" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" were playing in theaters all at the same time.
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The first four were about middle-class people; "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," in classic Tyler Perry style, split the difference between 'hood and buppie. Monolithic? Jamie Foxx had won an Oscar for "Ray" a few months before, and this was not a fluke, as Morgan Freeman had won one, too, for "Million Dollar Baby." Neither film was "urban" or comedic. The year before, Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo had been nominated for Oscars for "Hotel Rwanda," again, hardly a funny ghetto picture.

The Tyler Perry factor

Meanwhile, a more reasonable complaint was that there weren't black producers who could greenlight a film. Soon, though, Tyler Perry was doing just that, with massive success. But no, the new idea: This didn't count because Perry's films aren't exactly deep.
Yet if Perry opted to concentrate on subtle, challenging films like "Beloved" and "Amistad," which were directed by white men, as it happened, and embraced by few Americans of any color, then Perry would long ago have gone under and -- bitterly -- been lamented as an example of how racism continually does in black people's attempts at creativity.
Instead, Perry has gone on greenlighting left and right, getting rich, and providing a new generation of black people with a shelf of treasured DVDs of his films, which amid the hijinks showcase serious black acting by top-drawer performers. Just whom does it benefit to dismiss this success story with acrid "critique"?
This is the kind of damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don't Cassandraism that we should beware of cultivating as we revisit the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. We don't have to imagine how this insistent gloom could mislead us on the Oscars specifically, because a widely read article is already showing the way.
Namely, had you considered that the best actor Oscar nominations black people do get are still, themselves, racist? Brandon K. Thorp's contribution to the #OscarsSoWhite debate is that the Academy prefers to nominate depictions of black people in trouble, pain and poverty.
It's hasty to assume, however, that this is about keeping black people "in their place." The guiding principle here is atonement. It is part of being an educated white American these days to sustainedly disavow racism, and part of this effort treats depictions of racism as "coming to terms" with the past.
Yes, this results in a degree of bending over backward and even condescension.
But imagine if the Academy started ignoring black depictions of poverty and became more interested in celebrating depictions of black success. Immediately the charge would be that whites were trying, as always, to deny the reality of racism and hold off the "conversation" about race we are always supposed to be having.

#OscarsSoWhite in 2016 is not what you think

We don't have to wonder about how it would play out: "The Help" was roundly condemned for exactly this, despite depicting the suffering of black maids in the deep South of the 1960s. Apparently, black women enduring entrenched bigotry and even physical abuse was offensive because the film was too "glossy;" it focused as much on the whites as the black people, and Viola Davis' character (an Oscar nomination) loved the white child she took care of every day for years.
Need we wonder how the same critics would feel if Hollywood stopped addressing black pain at all? Or even much less?
So: Yes, the Academy needs to diversify, and thankfully there are signs this will be happening. And yes, there need to be lots more nonwhites behind the cameras. However, in 2016, #OscarsSoWhite cannot be taken as an indication that the news for black film actors is lousy as always. A 1950 segregationist brought to our times would be revolted at how utterly unavoidable black actors now are all over the silver screen in roles big, medium and small. That matters.
Wariness is important, but taken too far, it implies that success -- faced squarely and fully celebrated -- is racially inauthentic, that the very soul of blackness is frustration and failure, and that without it we don't quite know who we are or why we are here.
I reject that, and so should all of us, as well as the rest of America.