Tuesday, March 9, 2010

At This Year's Oscars, History was Made Twice

On Sunday, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director in the Academy Awards' 82-year history. (A much deserved win, IMHO.) However, not to steal Ms. Bigelow's thunder, we also witnessed another historic first at this year's Oscars: Geoffrey Fletcher, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for Precious, became the first African-American to win an Oscar for screenwriting.

This is no small feat and no small milestone. Over the last 82 years, an impressive roster of black actors and actresses have won Oscars, most of them within the last two decades. Russell Williams II even won back-to-back Oscars for his work as a sound mixer. But until this year, we've yet to see an African-American screenwriter take home the gold. (No African-American has ever won the Oscar for Best Director, a fact I'm sure both Lee Daniels and Spike Lee are acutely aware of.)

Mr. Fletcher's win is particularly impressive given the hurdles black screenwriters still face in Hollywood. The number of movies written by black screenwriters that get theatrical distribution is woefully small--certainly smaller than the number of films starring black actors and actresses. (The last major study on diversity in Hollywood, conducted by the Writers Guild of America in 2007, pegged the percentage of employed black film writers at 6%; white writers accounted for over 90% of that total.) And although it might be easy to gloss over the significance of Mr. Fletcher's win in the Age of Barack Obama and Tyler Perry, the fact remains that black screenwriters continue to face real challenges in getting hired by studios and seeing their stories make it to the screen.

Please understand: there's no malicious intent behind this. There's no conspiracy. It's just the way it is. The numbers--and the faces behind the writing credits--prove it.

As a screenwriter myself who's been fortunate enough to see something I've written make it to the (small) screen--though not without a few battle scars--I can attest to the reality and persistence of these challenges. They are by no means insurmountable, but they are real.

However, on Sunday, Mr. Fletcher gave black screenwriters (myself included) another reason to stay motivated and stay in the game. And just as Ms. Bigelow's win is an inspiring moment for women directors, Mr. Fletcher's is an equally inspiring moment for black screenwriters--writers who hope to see their work make it to the screen, and who may even dream of one day winning the film industry's most coveted honor. (Interestingly, Mr. Fletcher won his Oscar for a film that has caused quite a bit of controversy and disagreement within the black community, but that's a topic for another day.)

Mr. Fletcher is hardly new to filmmaking. He's received numerous accolades for his work, including awards from the Directors Guild and the Sundance Film Festival, and according to his IMDB page he is currently a film professor at Columbia and NYU. (In addition to being the first African- American to win a screenwriting Oscar, he might also be the first professor to win one!)

In 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American ever to win an Academy Award, it was a powerful and empowering moment in black history, not to mention film history. Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett, Jr., Halle Berry, and Russell Williams II likewise made history with their Oscar wins. And now you can add Professor Geoffrey Fletcher to that shortlist: the first black scribe to take home Oscar gold.

And what's ironic is that it happened after America had already elected it first black President.

Makes you wonder which feat was harder to pull off.