Monday, March 8, 2010

‘Precious’ night, precious changes

Sunday was a big night for upsets at the 82nd Academy Awards. Most of the attention’s gone to “The Hurt Locker” and its surprising win as Best Picture, beating out the prohibitive favorite, “Avatar.” The Best Picture win for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Locker” is a triumph for cost-effective motion picture production. The film was made for about $11 million, and has recouped almost twice that amount. True, “Avatar,” made for about $237 million, has put $2.56 billion worth of butts in theater seats around the world. But the win for “Hurt Locker” (and director Bigelow’s Oscar for best director, the first for a female director) feels like a triumph of the underdog.

And for fans of the African American filmgoing experience, the underdog was top dog tonight. With two awards, black talent in Hollywood took a huge leap forward.

Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” made movie history when he became the first black screenwriter to win an Oscar in the 82-year history of the Academy Awards. John Singleton was the most recent to come close; he was the previous black screenwriter to be nominated, for “Boyz n’ the Hood,” back in 1991. Fast forward, now ... 19 long years.

“I don’t know what to say,” an emotional Fletcher said. “"This is for everybody who works on a dream everyday -- precious boys and girls everywhere."

But Fletcher’s triumph is bigger than something just for him. The solitary process of sitting in front of a keyboard, a typewriter or a blank sheet of paper and writing, willing a world into existence from the stuff of your own imagination, is one of the more mysterious practices — maybe the most mysterious practice — of the movie business, and a definite exception (at least at first) to the groupthink mindset that’s a necessary part of making a major motion picture.

Black people have been doing that for generations. What’s different now for black and minority wordsmiths is doing it, for the first time, with the weight of Oscar’s gravitas in their corner. On Sunday a black screenwriter joined the pantheon of movie greats who have tapped into that special reservoir of the imagination that yields Oscar gold. From now on, that fact will fire the spirits of every other such screenwriting hopeful who dares to sit down with pen in hand (or keyboard at hand) and invent what comes after FADE IN.

◊ ◊ ◊

Just minutes after Fletcher’s victory, the Best Supporting Actress award went to Mo’Nique, the former Radio One talk show host, BET standup comedian and television actress whose incendiary portrayal of Mary Jones in “Precious” has provoked tears in audiences since the film hit the theaters.

With her win Sunday, Mo’Nique added the Oscar to a long list of awards for her “Precious” portrayal, including a Golden Globe award, and awards for best supporting actress from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Screen Actors Guild, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.



"First I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics." I want to thank Ms. Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to. ... to my amazing husband Sidney, thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forgo doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right.”

Not a dry eye nowhere.

From the beginning of Hollywood, and certainly from the beginning of black people trying to get over in Hollywood, success in motion pictures has been a matter of measuring progress by alien and unfamiliar yardsticks. More and more, that progress is measured by our own.

That’s a precious fact — precious without the quote marks.

Image credits: Fletcher, Oscar statuette: Yada/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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