Courtesy: Universal

Film

How 'Get Out' Became the Oscars' Great Black Hope

Get Out, the subversive genre movie that was a massive commercial and critical success, appears to be the great black hope of this year’s awards season. Oscar prognosticators are predicting that it could score major-category nominations for Best Picture, Director and Actor.

Should it break into those races when nominations are announced Tuesday, the movie would not only be the first genre film of its kind to be a real awards-season player since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs (which famously swept the top four categories at the 1992 Academy Awards). Get Out might also be the only 2018 film in the mix for picture, director and lead acting to feature people of color in prominent roles in front of and behind the camera.

This year was supposed to be different. After two straight years of #OscarsSoWhite, 2017 began with the unexpected Oscar triumph of Moonlight, a low-budget, low-grossing indie film about a gay black youth’s coming of age. That year's ceremony also featured a record number of overall nominations for people of color.
"I'll never forget my Facebook feed the weekend or two after ['Get Out'] came out."
Moonlight's success was not just a tribute to the film itself but also likely the result of concerted efforts on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its first African-American president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Following high-profile snubs of films like Selma and Straight Outta Compton, there was a major backlash over the lack of diversity in the Academy’s voting bloc–and Isaacs helped spearhead a purge of inactive members, alongside a recruitment of over 1,000 younger, more multicultural voices.

"Every publicist I've talked to this year are banking on these 1,100 Academy members pulling their movies through," Clayton Davis, editor of the Oscar website Awards Circuit, tells Playboy. "Everyone has a different interpretation of what these 1,100 people mean."

For many, the new members were supposed to mean tangible change. Despite the industry's reputation as a liberal bastion, the film business has historically been what one 2016 study called a "straight, white boys club," with blockbuster films rarely headlined by people of color, women and people who identify as LGBTQ.

"Last year was a total anomaly—just about every slice of black life was represented."
Get Out, which is directed by Key and Peele alum Jordan Peele and stars Best Actor hopeful Daniel Kaluuya, has proven to be an unlikely outlier. (Other people of color in the Oscars mix this year include The Shape of Water's Octavia Spencer and Mudbound's Mary J. Blige, both seen as contenders for Supporting Actress.) But Get Out's horror-film pedigree might be working against it.

"You can’t find a Best Picture nominee in the 90-year history of the Oscars that looks like Get Out," says Davis. "There's still old guys in the Academy who are gonna look at [it] and say, 'Not for me. I'm going to go with The Darkest Hour—I know what that's about.'"

"So often when you hear the phrase 'Oscar contender,' you think it’s a bunch of white people—they're all sad, someone has a secret they’re all grappling with, maybe they’re poor, maybe someone has a prosthetic nose,” added James III, one of the hosts of the Black Man Can’t Jump (In Hollywood) podcast.

Also working against the movie is the fact that it’s—as Slate’s Aisha Harris puts it—a "searing indictment" of some of the white liberals expected to vote for it. "If it wins, it will be as powerful Moonlight, if not more so," Harris tells Playboy. "Although I do think we are heading into another #OscarsSoWhite for the most part, save for one or two films, and I’m not sure this year the problem is the Academy as much as it is the industry.”

"If there are no prestigious African-American films being made, the Academy can't nominate what's not there."
A recent Los Angeles Times Envelope cover story underlined how much work is still left to do. While purporting to be about outspoken women representing the future of Hollywood, its cover seemed like a relic of its past, as it featured strictly a collection of established white actresses. Previously, Vanity Fair had erred with its annual Hollywood issue, which until recently had predominantly featured white performers and served as a perpetual reminder of the second-class status minorities occupy in the film business, even though they disproportionately constitute the audiences that still pay to see the product in theaters.

"It's business as usual in Hollywood," Gil Robertson, the president of the African-American Critics Association, tells Playboy. "[It's] the status-quo players who run this town and are determined to keep things the way they want it: a reflection of themselves."

And while he concedes that Get Out has been a "game changer," he also believes the industry has remained stubbornly resistant to opening up the levers of power to people of color. "Less than two years after #OscarsSoWhite, we're right back where we started," Robertston says. "Last year was a total anomaly—just about every slice of black life was represented. The only way for that to happen consistently is if we create the content ourselves and distribute it ourselves."

"The problem has never been solely with the Academy—the problem is with Hollywood," adds Davis. "If there are no prestigious African-American films being made, the Academy can’t nominate what's not there."

Still, there are reasons to feel encouraged by strides in cinematic representation. For instance, the diverse The Last Jedi is the top-grossing film at 2017’s box office, making history alongside Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman—the first time three movies headlined by women will have been the biggest domestic hits of the year.

But what about racial parity? In the wake of a deluge of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault heaped on a who's who of prominent Hollywood players and power brokers, the subject of race has understandably taken a bit of backseat to a reckoning that continues to target toxic men.

But there are glimmers of hope amid newer, smaller production companies like A24 and Neon, which have shown a greater willingness to gamble on content and diversity. And 2018 will feature two big-budget blockbusters directed by African-American filmmakers: Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, had previous films by DuVernay (Selma) and Coogler (Creed) not flirted with Oscar success in the past, the directors may not have had the clout to secure those new projects.

While some would argue that dwindling ratings have rendered the Academy Awards increasingly irrelevant, the ceremony functions to some degree as Hollywood’s Hall of Fame, enshrining in any given year the movies deemed the best by the industry, and providing a crucial commercial boost weeks after a movie may have otherwise peaked financially. "When you're a 90-year establishment, you've earned your place in history," says Davis. "People of color need to see themselves represented [in that history]."

According to Davis, Get Out has been in the lead in the run-up to Hollywood's big night, and with no surefire Best Picture front-runner for the first time in years, it still has a shot. In the one category where voters can rank their favorites, a movie as sticky as this one can pull off the unthinkable.

"I'll never forget my Facebook feed the weekend or two after it came out," says James III. "It was people of all different backgrounds talking about how they were affected by it."

"My hope is that it gets the kind of representation in the awards that it deserves," he adds. "And my hope is that people don’t even realize what the actual implications of it winning best picture are."

Related Topics

Explore Categories