Women’s History Month:
Women of Color Make History

As Black History month comes to a close and Women’s History Month begins, I am struck by a shift in the conversation about diversity and race. For one thing, it seems we are having the conversation more and it is featured more prominently. And women of color are stepping into the limelight and being recognized for their achievements.

The difference was striking in the 2019 Oscars, in which nominees, presenters, and winners of color were all well represented. Four of the eight films nominated for best picture were about the narratives centered on people of color. The monster hit “Black Panther” represents a real sea change in cinema. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson writes,

“The cast is suddenly in high demand. For African American filmmakers in Hollywood, “Black Panther” didn’t open doors. It blew them away.’

Two of the year’s best and most admired films highlight women of color. Roma, which won many awards including Best Foreign Film, highlights the life of an indigenous Mexican woman and the middle class family she serves, and to some extent, holds together. Pregnant, she has been abandoned by her boyfriend but the woman she works for stands by her. Her employer’s own husband has left the family, and together the two women pick up the pieces.

Another film featuring a woman of color is If Beale Street Could Talk. This movie deals with the persistent racism haunting a middle class African American family in the supposedly liberal New York of the 1970s. Accepting her Oscar for her performance for best supporting actress, Regina King thanked her mother (in the audience) saying this award is “an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone.”

In the film, King plays a fiercely devoted mother herself, who is trying to cope with her artist son’s wrongful arrest for murder by a racist cop. Despite the contrast often drawn between the northern states and the southern parts of the country, in the 1970s, when the film (and novel, by James Baldwin) is set, shows the way Northern, urban blacks were (and still are) targeted.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told an interracial audience in New York City in 1960, “There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal,” He longed for real liberalism that “rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood,” He  wrote that “the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” is as much an impediment to civil rights as an outright racist.

One of the things most striking about “Beale Street,” as reflected in both Regina King’s performance and her acceptance speech, is the important role that women, especially mothers, have in African American life. King was not the only award winner to mention the strength and support they received from their female family members. Spike Lee, in his speech, lauded his grandmother, who saved up for years in order to send him to college and graduate school.

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