The summer of reckoning continues. As of this week, people have been in the streets for more than a month protesting police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Past being a prologue, the movement is unlikely to halt anytime soon. This weekend is the Fourth of July, and 244 years after its first one, the country is still in the midst of an American revolution, still working toward a day of independence for all. This time, though, the struggle is internal, cultural.
Considering that there are protestors in the streets risking their lives, what I’m about to say may sound trite, but bear with me. This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the outfit responsible for the Oscars, released the list of the new members invited into the organization in 2020. Per the Academy, the new class of filmmakers (yes, they’re called classes, like X-Men) consists of 45 percent women, 36 percent come from “underrepresented ethnic/racial communities,” and 49 percent come from 68 countries around the globe. Back in 2016, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, the organization made a promise to double the number of women and people from underrepresented groups in the Academy by this year. It has now surpassed that goal and is setting new ones for 2025.
You may not care about the Academy or the Oscars. Or movies at all. In this moment in America, who could blame you? But taking the long view, the cultural products audiences pay attention to—and the ones deemed worthy of praise by organizations like the Academy—say a lot about what a society values. Moonlight’s win for Best Picture wasn’t just a victory for a beautiful piece of filmmaking, it was confirmation that the stories of young black queer people matter. Taking movies like Gone With the Wind off of streaming services, or removing TV episodes that feature blackface, isn’t censorship, it’s an acknowledgement of past mistakes and an admission that Hollywood, and the people who run it, can do better. Evaluating and changing the makeup of the membership of the Academy won’t change what kind of movies hit multiplexes overnight, but it will ensure that more perspectives are taken into consideration when determining what is the best art of our time.
And speaking of doing better (maybe), Kanye West released a new song and video this week. He also announced a partnership with his former employer Gap, and spent some time with Elon Musk. (Maybe he’s designing a Tesla? A spaceship? Who knows.) The song, “Wash Us in the Blood,” is West’s first since the Covid-19 pandemic started and the George Floyd protests began. With its blend of religious overtones and commentary on genocide and mass incarceration, it almost feels like old Kanye, before he put on the Make America Great Again hat or went to TMZ to share his views on slavery. As Craig Jenkins put it in Vulture, “The question of whether this signals the end of Evangelical Ye’s crossed-up Republican ideologies and the resurrection of the loud, challenging Yeezus, or if this is another astute aesthetic embrace of pro-Blackness from a corporate entity we hear from only when there’s a new product, will have to wait until more of [West’s forthcoming album] God’s Country is charted. For now, Kanye did a thing, and for once, it’s fine.”
Again, it seems almost vapid to talk about glitzy award shows and music videos at a time like this. But ultimately, how culture—and cultural figures—respond to current events does matter. It’s evident in all of the celebrities posting images of themselves at protests and demanding change in Hollywood. It’s evident in Tom Hanks posting about his plasma donation. It’s evident in Ray Fisher taking to Twitter to call out Joss Whedon’s behavior on the set of Justice League. It’s been evident for as long as there have been societies and art to critique them. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out 31 years ago this week. The movie was itself a response to the death of New York artist Michael Stewart, who died after being taken into custody by law enforcement in 1983. In the film, Radio Raheem dies at the hands of NYPD in a method not dissimilar from the death of Eric Garner, 25 years after the release of Lee’s movie. Do the Right Thing was nominated for two Oscars—one for screenwriting, for Lee, and another one for Best Supporting Actor, for Danny Aiello. It won neither. Best Picture that year went to Driving Miss Daisy. Imagine if it hadn’t.
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