The Other Black Oscar Winners…Both Firsts, But Probably Not in the Way You Think
Geoffrey Shawn Fletcher and Roger Ross Williams were the other Oscar recipients last night, but people were too fastened on the acting sweepstakes to realize that Fletcher and Williams scored firsts for black cinematic achievement.
Fletcher won for best adapted screenplay for Precious.
Williams (along with Elinor Burkett) won for best documentary short subject for Music by Prudence.
This was from a live blog at the L.A. Times website. Apparently Fletcher’s win was an upset.
We’re temporarily distracted as the ‘Logorama’ director comes backstage — big upset in that category; more on that shortly — but we heard the gasps from everyone around us as “Precious” screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who wasn’t even nominated for a Golden Globe, wins best screenplay over Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for “Up in the Air” (who did win the Golden Globe).
Fletcher takes the earnest road he’s been on for a while in giving his acceptance speech: “This is for everybody who works on a dream everyday — precious boys and girls everywhere.” The Fletcher win has us thinking that there could be more big (read: non-acting) prizes in “Precious’s” future, maybe even a director or picture prize?
Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” is the first African American screenwriter to take home an Academy Award.
The 39-year-old adjunct professor of film at Columbia University and NYU surprised some by beating favorite Jason Reitman, writer/director of “Up in the Air.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Fletcher said in his breathless acceptance speech.
This was the Connecticut-born writer’s first produced screenplay, for which he was also awarded an Independent Spirit Award.
Five other African American screenwriters had been nominated in past years. The first were Lonne Elder and Suzanne de Passe in 1972: Elder for his adapted screenplay for “Sounder,” and Passe’s original script for “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Charles Fuller scored a nomination in 1984 for his adapted screenplay “A Soldier’s Story,” based upon his own book.
Spike Lee was nominated in 1989 for his “Do The Right Thing” screenplay, and John Singleton was similarly nominated in 1991 for “Boyz n the Hood.”
Unfortunately, producer-director Roger Ross Williams’ achievement was upstaged by his co-producer, former Salon.com contributor Elinor Burkett in the first Kanye’d Oscar speech. (It is not clear whether Williams was also a first African American filmmaker in receiving this Oscar for best documentary short subject.) She wasn’t invited to any of the important Oscar activities, but this pushy broad made sure she rushed up there and grabbed the mic. He hadn’t even begun his speech. Low class. No class. Here’s her story:
“What happened was the director and I had a bad difference over the direction of the film that resulted in a lawsuit that has settled amicably out of court. But there have been all these events around the Oscars, and I wasn’t invited to any of them. And he’s not speaking to me. So we weren’t even able to discuss ahead of the time who would be the one person allowed to speak if we won. And then, as I’m sure you saw, when we won, he raced up there to accept the award. And his mother took her cane and blocked me. So I couldn’t get up there very fast.”
And you thought those things only happened at the movies…
Asked about the reason for the conflict, Burkett explained that Music by Prudence should have been about the entire band, Liyana, but “the director and HBO decided to focus solely on Prudence.”
I can see why. Prudence was differently abled. HBO Films and Williams wanted us to go into Prudence’s world as a way to understand her, her disabilities and her and the band’s hopes and dreams in a country screwed being over by its own leader to the point of starvation. Says MTV:
“Music by Prudence” focuses on the life of Prudence Mabhena, a Zimbabwean singer who suffers from arthrogryposis, a debilitating condition that causes curved and misshapen joints and limbs. The film chronicles the unlikely musical success of Mabhena and her band Liyana. Mabhena herself was in the crowd during Burkett and Williams’ acceptance speech, laughing at the producer’s surprising arrival on the stage.
Too bad his poor mom didn’t trip her ass flat. Or that security didn’t pull her away. I was shocked; I think the audience was stunned too at what turned out to be extremely bad manners. It was how she did it that outrages me, because it’s another Kanye moment, this time with a white face. Now they think it’s okay to do this kind of thing. No, I don’t think it was all about the group Liyana, it’s all about her and how she wanted things to be, despite the lawsuit. Selfish, disrespectful, childish and low class. Word to folks at HBO: blackball her ass so that she never works in this town again.
Williams said he was stunned when Burkett “pulled a Kanye”. The warring couple were sitting near to one another in the auditorium, and video replays show Williams sprinting to the stage when the winner was announced, leaving Burkett in his wake.
“I just expected her to stand there. I had a speech prepared,” he said, recalling the moment that Burkett arrived on stage.
“The academy is very clear that only one person can speak. I own the film. She has no claim whatsoever. She has nothing to do with the movie. She just ambushed me. I was sort of in shock.”
Explaining the background to the row, Williams told Salon.com: “I was the director, and she was removed from the project nearly a year ago, but she was able to still qualify as a producer on the project, and be an official nominee. But she was very angry – she actually removed herself from the project – because she wanted more creative control.
“It’s such a career achievement, to win an Academy Award. This is what the business is. There are times when there’s disagreement and dispute and you always hope that people will rise up to the occasion. It doesn’t diminish it. She disowns it and doesn’t want any part of the film. I’m so proud of the movie.”
Told that the incident resembled Kanye West’s MTV moment, Williams said: “She did! She pulled a Kanye! And it’s a shame because this is such a positive, happy film.”
He denied that his mother had tried to block Burkett’s path with a walking stick. “My mother got up to hug me. And my mother is 87 years old.”
It was Roger Ross Williams’ first film and his first Oscar. He’s paid his dues working in productions that later appeared on PBS, BBC, CNN and network television.
Getting any kind of award or acknowledgment in your field of endeavor is supposed to be a special, cherished moment in the sun. It can become a historic event.
But when you have something like this spoil a once-in-a-lifetime moment… smh. Williams showed even more class not getting into an altercation on camera with his crass ex-producer and trying to refocus attention on Prudence Mabhena in the back of the Kodak Center. (Me, I probably would have nailed my 10-1/2 high heel on her hammer toe.) Possibly, Williams could have talked briefly in his speech about the situation in Zimbabwe with its dictator Robert Mugabe. But we never got to hear that. However, the incident may also have won Williams and HBO some sympathy points in Tinseltown. Interviewed backstage, according to his hometown newspaper in Easton, PA, Williams decided to put the experience immediately in the past.
Williams, who graduated from Northampton Community College in 1983 and now lives in New York, said he was trying to take it all in stride. He called Burkett “a crazy lady.”
“I’m going to enjoy the moment and stop worrying about it,” he said.
Twitter was aflutter with the awkward exchange that happened live in front of the theater audience and was beamed to millions watching on television.
Wrote the New York Times’ David Carr: “who is this maniac that walked on the short docs speech? awkward much? security, pls.”