The magnanimous fashion show and gossip mill doubling as an award show honoring thespians has come and gone once again. Indeed, the Academy Awards or “Oscars,” is no ordinary Awards show.
It is in fact, THE largest and most expensive promotional event for the Hollywood movie and fashion industry. It compels everyday citizens of America and the world to purchase and watch films they didn’t previously see (kind of like one long infomercial). This or that designer achieves, maintains, or loses prestige. We see the latest and most hip hairstyles.
We cannot forget that Hollywood is a huge propaganda machine. Much of the award show’s promotional and propagandist agenda is of course, lost on a worldwide audience seduced by its powerful pomp and pageantry. Dazed by this “Wow” factor we seldom contemplate the role Hollywood plays in serving us underdogs, superficial sentimentality, and contrived consciousness to help us forget or excuse the many transgressions of “our” government.
And yet, even in this annual media and propaganda circus, there are occasional victories (even if largely symbolic) scored for humanity and things that matter. With all the obsession over clothing designers, celebrity anecdotes, red carpets, “selfies,” and the irrepressible antics of Ellen Degeneres, one could easily have missed the following victories for humanity at The 2014 Academy Awards.
1. It exposed the world to the dehumanizing and exploitative enslavement of African people. The film “12 Years a Slave” – which won for Best Picture – was based on the book of the same name written by Solomon Northup. Northup’s autobiography chronicled the horrific experiences he endured as a free Black man tricked into traveling to Washington, D.C. for an employment opportunity, where he was sold into slavery.
With riveting performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who played Northup) and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, along with excellent directing by brother Steve McQueen, this film reminds the entire world of America’s cruel bondage and mistreatment of our ancestors. With all the foolish and insulting talk by white conservatives and their Black lap dogs about America being “Post-racial,” and evolved on questions of race, the timing of this film was simply impeccable. “12 Years a Slave” holds a mirror of conscience and chastisement to a country that still attempts to trivialize the brutality of our enslavement along with its unthinkable degradation and lasting impact upon Black people today (despite the “apologies” of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress).
2. It Highlighted the Black woman’s immense beauty and talent. We are at least vaguely familiar with the historical propaganda which suggested that dark skin was a badge of inferiority, ugliness, and shame. In the case of Black women, the insults went on to include: licentious, crass, incompetent and many more. Sadly, we Black folk have sometimes internalized our rich hue as stigmatizing. And try as we might to disguise or dismiss this self-hatred, all we need do is examine the cosmetic choices some of us continue to make.
Our hue is still problematic for some of us and for some of the world, though others continue to covet and attempt to emulate our hue-manity. And even in, these times when dark skin is more trendy, we still find dark-complected women scarce in movies and on magazine covers. Ironic isn’t it, how the world’s first (African) beauty aesthetic, is now devalued? Enter the gorgeous and talented new actress Lupita Nyong’o who won for best supporting actress. Her debut performance in 12 Years a Slave was every bit as breathtaking as her flawless Hershey complexion, pronounced cheekbones and expressive eyes. Equally impressive are her carriage, warmth, and easy grace. Her posture in the role, her anguished eyes and defiant spirit conveyed the pain of human bondage, the brutality of white male sexual domination, and the despair caused by the family-robbing nature of enslavement. If Lupita were a student in a typical American elementary school, she would likely have faced ridicule for her African origin and physical features as so many little girls do today. Her performance and her stunning beauty and humility to match, provide yet another model of African, dark Black skin and character for the world and for little Black girls living in a world that devalues them. To them, Lupita’s examples boldly proclaims: “Be proud of and comfortable with the skin you’re in, and bring honor to your ancestors while doing so.”
3. It exposed the ruthlessness and greed of the American Pharmaceutical industry/medical establishment, and the shameful mistreatment of people suffering with AIDS. The film “Dallas Buyer’s Club” is true story centered on homophobe and womanizer Ron Woodroof, a Houston-based rodeo cowboy and electrician who suddenly learns he has a month to live due to his contraction of HIV. Desperate to prolong his life, he begins doing his own research on HIV and learns to his dismay that the prescribed medication (AZT) endorsed by the FDA does more harm than good to its users. He then learns of more effective alternative medications, but has no access to them because the FDA hasn’t approved them.
Defying the FDA and the American Pharmaceutical industry, Woodroof soon illegally travels to Mexico and other countries and begins to smuggle more effective medications into the United States from places like Japan, and creates a buyer’s club. Basically, for a $400 per month membership fee, club members have access to an unlimited supply of drugs to treat their HIV. While he encountered problems with law enforcement for his activities, Woodroof eventually lived for 7 years after his original diagnosis rather than the 30 days lifespan suggested by doctors. Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for playing the role of Ron Woodroof in this movie and did an amazingly convincing job in his portrayal (he lost almost 50 pounds for the role).
This movie and McConaughey’s brilliant performance, highlights the greed and indifference of a medical/healthcare system that sometimes privileges profit over citizens’ health and the American government’s complicity through the Food and Drug Administration. It is indeed a shame that Woodroof’s greatest obstacle to receive effective HIV treatment was physicians, hospitals and the government itself. Equally shameful is the fact that U.S. citizens suffering with HIV and AIDS, especially those who are members of the LGBT community are treated in such insulting and degrading manners. Why should anyone have to create underground organizations, or participate in international drug trafficking just to receive medication for their illness? This is a damning critique of American medical and pharmaceutical industries supposedly responsible for ensuring our health.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.