The recent announcement of an exclusive all-white list of actors who are the finalists for this year’s Oscars has provoked a lot of negative black reaction.

Big names in the movie industry like Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, have criticised and condemned the list of nominees.

Many other black people around the world, including in South Africa, are not excited.

It is sad that there are not enough black voices to express the diversity of opinion.

There are a few black voices that have opposed those who oppose black participation. But they have been muted.

Not even Chris Rock, an internationally renowned black comedian has said anything significant except to release a tweet: Oscars are the white BET [Black Entertainment Television] Awards or something to that effect.

But the judges have a right to their opinion.

Art is relative. The Oscars, too, are nothing but an opinion of men and women who have the privilege to decide who is the best actor and who is not.

The judges are mostly aged men and women who grew up in the time of racial segregation in the United States.

It can be presumed that they have neither worked with black actors nor exposed to their works. So what do they know? What can they say about black artistry?

We can pretend to know what they are thinking and how they feel about black people.

Frankly, black actors do not have the power to stop the Oscars. The easy thing is for them to continue to play it safe and allow the judges to decide who is best or who is not.

This does not make the judges God. They are only expressing an opinion.

Black actors must remain strong and follow their instincts. When they act they do not seek white approval but opportunities to express their talent and celebrate their skills.

They should heed the words of Marcus Garvey: “If we people realised the greatness from which we came we would be less likely to disrespect ourselves.”

It is unthinkable that when black actors take up roles it is with the single-minded ambition to please white judges or to win Oscar awards. In fact, it is self-disrespect for any black actor to hanker after living up to the expectations of white judges.

They are not in this world to live up to white expectations. They are here on earth to do their own thing and remain true to their history and themselves.

The Oscars have been a historical source of displeasure for black actors. After all, they were not created with black people in mind or to be instruments of equality.

They were created to celebrate white talent. The founders did not imagine a world where black and white would act together.

One would have liked to see pioneers like Sidney Poitier and contemporary legends like Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Spike Lee, among others, refuse to accept any Oscar awards because of their history.

But black actors cannot do that because they have become part of the history they fought against. They have been gobbled up by globalisation.

Some like Pinkett Smith believe that blacks must withdraw and boycott the Oscars. But that will not change anything. Neither will setting up a black Oscars help.

It will be a futile exercise that will promote separatism and take us back to the primitive era.

But Pinkett Smith is right and echoes Garvey when she raises questions about the self-perception and consciousness of black actors. When you are aggrieved by someone who refuses to acknowledge your talent, you are giving too much power to your detractors.

The sooner black actors take back their power by refusing to be defined or judged by others the better. They know their worth and value.

Worse, they know what to expect from old white actors who dominate the judging panel at the Oscars.

Over the decades, far too many black actors have based their worth on what white judges think of them. They worry too much if white actors who reaped the fruits of discrimination do not like their acting or approve that they get awards.

This is placing too much importance on what the enemy thinks.

In fact, black actors must just deal with their insecurity and self-doubt. They are constantly playing up to please white judges.

It is okay if you do that to a white director who gave you a break. But they do not owe anybody else anything except to be true to themselves and give their best, for themselves.

When black actors moan about not being nominated or create a storm around the alleged racism of the Oscars, they are forgetting the history they come from. It means that they place white approval and affirmation above their history and aspirations.

Black aspirations are not to be equal to whites or try to please them but to remain true to self.

Thus they are setting themselves up for failure, manipulation and control. They allow themselves to be judged by standards they did not determine and a panel that is not representative.

But they will not lose anything if they just forget about the Oscars to only concentrate on personal goals that they will have set for themselves. Happiness will be possible when black actors are content with themselves and what they have to offer.

There will be freedom and self-determination when black actors — or any actors, for that matter — realise that they don’t need the approval or affirmation of white judges.

They have been granted talent to express themselves and that is a reward enough.

Black actors should not even think of pulling out of the Oscars. The BET Awards are not different to the Oscars as they imitate everything and were set up for blacks to affirm themselves in their own black cocoon.

Much is expected from black actors as people who come from a history of struggle for justice and equality in the world. They are the ones who have to give the world a human face. To paraphrase June Jordan, they are the ones we have been waiting for.

They must take charge of their own lives. They must not allow themselves to be pressured or judged by people who do not appreciate what they have to offer the world.

It is not their fault that Hollywood is racist. But as people who have been integrated into a history they fought against, they can continue to work within the system. They have too far to turn back, now.

Black actors must do what they have to do because they have always done it as part of the struggle to give the world a human face. They must remain true to themselves.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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