Another Academy Awards show has come and gone, including ongoing complaints that historical films about the black American experience, most recently “Selma,” generally don’t win or are even nominated for any Oscars unless there’s a “white savior” involved. On the surface it sounds like racial bias or, at best, patronizing.
A few years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually, however, I realized why this is the case.
My newspaper runs a weekly, first-person column called “Saturday Diary,” to which I’m a frequent contributor. When I started there I was told, “The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the [Op-Ed] page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception.”
In other words, I learned at the conference that, say, mere social change simply doesn’t make a good story in its own right, either in print or on the screen. The protagonist needs to undergo a transformation of his or her own in the process for the story to be effective.
A personal example: At the end of prom season three years ago I wrote a Diary called “Being Prince Charming” — I still regret that I didn’t go to mine 36 years ago, but on my birthday in 2010 I took a woman to a cabaret for which we “went to town,” having portraits taken and everything. (While it wasn’t a complete make-up, I did get a sense of satisfaction.)
That “inner transformation” is why films like “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus,” both about the apartheid system in South Africa, made for good stories. In the former, a white “liberal” newspaper editor who was a severe critic of a banned black activist later became friends with him and took up the cause; with the latter, Nelson Mandela, sent to prison for nearly 30 years and probably bitter at that time, emerged a conciliator and, upon becoming president, challenged his own people to “do right by” the white population. (That film, whose immediate premise was Mandela’s attempt to unite the country behind the national rugby team during the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting, won an ESPY award from ESPN.)
So perhaps the critics of the Academy are barking up the wrong tree. It could be that people need to see how the black American experience would change the folks involved on a heart level, not just in a cultural or legal sense.