Black History Month’s nationwide mission, since its annual designation by Gerald Ford in 1976, has been to honor and celebrate the achievements of African Americans. Although they have become much more visible in the entertainment landscape since the early 1970s, shows centered around African Americans are still few and far between, as was the case during our country’s bicentennial year, with shows like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” being the exception rather than the rule.
Forty years later, the entertainment landscape (and with it, public awareness) has changed considerably and for the better. In 2017, the entertainment industry is far more diverse, with TV shows and films that feature black characters and actors from a large variety of backgrounds.
As February drew to a close, the Oscars, an event which was heavily criticized last year for the lack of diversity in its actor nominations, offered an undoubtedly bright, diverse image of black talent. Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie “Fences,” and is now one of the select few actors and actresses to have earned an Emmy, Tony, and an Oscar. Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor, and Ruth Negga was nominated for Best Actress. Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Moonlight,” the story of a young black man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, a movie which also won Best Picture, the Academy’s highest honor.
Aside from the critical success of the movie “Moonlight,” January’s debut of “Hidden Figures,” which highlights the struggle and integral role of black women at NASA at the dawn of the space program, was also not only nominated for Best Picture, but has also been a box office smash; it earned over $150 million dollars in the US market. These two movies and others like “Fences” highlight not only the accomplishments and talents of their actors, but the oftentimes neglected stories of the characters they play. Before “Hidden Figures,” not many people knew who Katherine Johnson was or how integral she was to the space program. Now, at age 98, she received a standing ovation at the Oscars and has inspired little girls everywhere with her story, regardless of their race.
In the past 40 years, television has evolved to include a variety of African American casts and shows. Television today features shows like “Black-ish,” “Empire,” and “Scandal,” which center around African American characters, with some often challenging and defying stereotypes. They portray a wide spectrum of black America, from music moguls and political power players to middle class families, to name but a few.
A lot has changed in 40 years, and the entertainment industry is shifting with it, making more of a move towards the goal of Black History Month itself: to honor the accomplishments of black Americans.
By Sam Hodman