Race, Barriers and Battling Nerves: A Candid Conversation With Oscar’s Only 4 African-American Directing Nominees in 90 Years

Gathered for the first time, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and John Singleton break down the politics of who can tell what story, the doors that didn’t open and the game-changing impact of ‘Black Panther’: “It almost feels like, ‘Are black people gonna go see white people’s movies now that we have our own?'”

In late January, Jordan Peele became just the fourth African-American filmmaker in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for best director. The 39-year-old behind Get Out follows John Singleton, who in 1992 was the category’s youngest-ever nominee at 24 when he was recognized for directing Boyz N the Hood, along with Lee Daniels, now 58 (Precious, 2009), and Barry Jenkins, 38 (Moonlight, 2016). If this elite group were expanded to include all black directors, it would add only Britain’s Steve McQueen, who earned his nomination in 2014 for helming 12 Years a Slave.

None of these prior nominees ultimately took home the Oscar. With the March 4 ceremony looming and the racial makeup of the Academy and the industry at large under increased scrutiny, THR gathered the quartet for a candid conversation about how success can feel like failure, the doors Black Panther has opened and why not one of these guys was able to enjoy his big night.

John, take us back to 1992. You’re 24 years old, and you’re at the Oscars as the first African-American best director nominee ever. You’re up against Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone … what do you remember?

SINGLETON Well, first of all, I’m fuckin’ scared. (Laughs.)

Why is that?

SINGLETON Because I thought it meant my career was over. I thought, “That’s their way to get me out.” I was really very humbled by it, too. I was a year out of film school when it happened, and I just sat down and tried to write and study film even more than I already had so I was up to that honor. At the same time, as a black man in America, my other fear was not wanting to necessarily lose myself in the hype of Hollywood.

Lee and Barry, can you empathize with that feeling of fear?

DANIELS For sure.

JENKINS Definitely. For me, I didn’t make Moonlight for the awards conversation, and when it ended up there, I was shocked the whole way. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then with how things ultimately went in the end [with the mistaken announcement that La La Land had won best picture], because of how loud it was and all of that other stuff, I’ve never been as distraught as I was at the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars.

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