Black History Month and the Oscars

February is Black History Month, and like every other segment of our society, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has a long history of racism that it has only recently attempted to remedy. The recent pressure on the Academy to diversify has resulted in very little improvement; in 2020, the distribution of Academy voters by race was 84% white and 16% minority. Yes, you read that right – 16%. In 20fucking20.

From its inception, Hollywood was a racist institution. The motion picture industry was founded by white men, and with few exceptions, white men told the stories; men and women of color (and women more generally – we’ll dig into Hollywood’s complicated and deplorable treatment of women another time), simply did not get a seat at the table. Black stories were not told, or they were told by white people and through the lens of white supremacy – slaves were happy, black women were servants or prostitutes, black men were dim-witted or criminals, white folks were their saviors.

One need look no later than 1915, when motion pictures were still in their infancy, to see the ultimate in movie racism – The Birth of a Nation. Although lauded for its innovative techniques (it pioneered close-ups and fade-outs, and was the first film to use an orchestral score), it is rightfully criticized for its use of blackface, its depiction of black men as sexual predators and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP unsuccessfully attempted to ban the film; in retaliation, director D.W. Griffith titled his next film Intolerance, a message to those who would censor him. Ah, cancel culture.

The Birth of a Nation‘s white supremacy message was so powerful, it literally spawned the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, and Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House. Wilson reportedly said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The Academy wouldn’t exist for another twelve or so years, but if Oscars had been given out that year, The Birth of a Nation almost certainly would have won Best Picture. It would have been the first in a long line of “white savior” movies being celebrated while black men and women were prevented from telling their own stories.

At the 12th annual Academy Awards, held in 1940, the most celebrated movie was Gone with the Wind; it earned thirteen nominations and won eight competitive and two honorary Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to receive an Oscar, for her role as Mammy in the film. McDaniel was forced to sit at a segregated table because the Ambassador Hotel, where the awards ceremony was held, had a strict whites-only policy.

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind is, of course, racist as hell. It portrays the confederacy in a sympathetic light and plantation owners as heroes, and McDaniel’s Mammy is such a stereotype of a sassy but dutiful servant that the character’s name came to be shorthand for that role (a more recent example, The Help‘s Minny Jackson, also won its portrayer a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But the film is also considered one of the all-time greats, and still holds the record for the highest box office gross adjusted for inflation.

The next black actor to be nominated for an Oscar was Dorothy Dandridge, for 1954’s Carmen Jones. She lost to Grace Kelly. A black actor wouldn’t win a Best Actress Oscar until 2001, when Halle Berry took home the prize for Monster’s Ball. In her acceptance speech, an emotional Berry dedicated her statue to Dandridge, among others. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Five more black women have been nominated for Best Actress Oscars since then, but Berry remains the only black winner in the category in the Academy’s 92 year history.

The first black man to win an acting Oscar was Sidney Poitier, for 1963’s Lilies of the Field (he’d also been nominated for 1958’s The Defiant Ones). One of the most notable things about the role of Homer Smith is that he could have been played by an actor of any color; Homer’s race is never even mentioned in the film. Poitier earned his Oscar not by playing a black man, but by playing a man, and his success would pave the way for more contemporary black actors to play roles where their race isn’t a plot point – among others, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

The 1970’s saw only five black actors nominated in any category; none won. In the 1980’s, two black actors won, both in the Best Supporting Actor category. At the 55th Academy Awards, Louis Gossett Jr. took home the prize for his portrayal of Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. It was another role where race was not a factor; in fact, R. Lee Ermey was originally cast for the part. Seven years later, at the 62nd Oscars, Denzel Washington took home his first statue, for his portrayal of Pvt. Silas Trip in Glory.

1989 was an interesting year for race in film, and that year’s Oscars highlight Hollywood’s problem with racial issues. The best film of 1989, Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, wasn’t even nominated, and Lee was overlooked in the Best Director category as well (Lee would have been the first black Best Director nominee; that honor would go to John Singleton two years later). Lee did receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay; he lost to Tom Schulman for Dead Poets Society. The winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1989? Driving Miss Daisy.

Driving Miss Daisy is well-intentioned, and it isn’t a bad movie. It’s anchored by two great performances; Morgan Freeman (reprising his role from the original off-Broadway production) is particularly wonderful, imbuing Hoke Colburn with a wisdom and dignity deserving of his own story. But the story isn’t Hoke’s – it’s Daisy’s (it’s right there in the title). We see the world through her eyes, and in her eyes, Hoke is a servant. Yes, the Jewish Daisy faces discrimination of her own, but a subplot with the potential to humanize her Jewishness – the bombing of a synagogue – inexplicably occurs off-screen. The film seems to long for a time before the civil rights movement, when black people still “knew their place”. and it seems to imply that if you endure enough verbal abuse and prejudice, you too can become friends with an old Southern white woman. Freeman has since disavowed his participation in the film, stating that it led him to being typecast as the “noble, wise, dignified” black man.

The 1990’s saw only two black acting Oscar winners: Whoopi Goldberg took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for her riotous turn as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, and Cuba Gooding Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for 1996’s Jerry Maguire. For those of you keeping track, that’s six Oscar winning performances by black actors in the 20th century. Six – out of 1440 nominations.

The 21st century started off well – at the 74th Academy Awards, two black actors took home Oscars: the aforementioned Halle Berry – still the only black person to win Best Actress – and Denzel Washington, who won Best Actor for Training Day. Obviously, Washington should have won nine years earlier for his blistering portrayal of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, but the Academy loves to hand out “lifetime achievement” awards (that’s the reason he lost in ’92 to Al Pacino). Three years later, at the 77th Oscars, two more black actors took home prizes – Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for Ray and Morgan Freeman finally won his first award, for Best Supporting Actor in Million Dollar Baby.

As the 2000’s continued, we saw a smattering of black actors in the race, and a handful won – Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and several black women won Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, Mo’Nique for Precious, Octavia Spencer for The Help, Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave, Viola Davis for Fences and Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk (it’s notable that the Academy seems to prefer black women in supporting roles). And Mahershala Ali took home two Best Supporting Actor prizes in three years, for Moonlight and Green Book.

In addition to Best Supporting Actor, Green Book won two other Oscars – Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen). Green Book is the sort of problematic film about race relations that Hollywood continues to make in the 21st century. The title comes from the guidebook used by African-American motorists in the Jim Crow era to locate black-owned businesses and avoid so-called “sundown towns”. One would naturally assume, given the title, that the story would center the black man; instead, Ali’s Don Shirley is relegated to the supporting role, with Mortensen’s Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga taking the lead. The film is the stereotypical “white savior” film that centers a bigot’s redemption. As New York Times writer Wesley Morris put it, Green Book is a “racial reconciliation fantasy”. A big part of the problem, of course, is that the film was written and directed by a white man, Peter Farrelly. One wonders what the movie could have been had a person of color told the story, with Don Shirley at the center of it.

Farrelly wasn’t even nominated for Best Director (but he did receive an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay) and a person of color (Roma‘s Alfonso Cuarón) did win the Best Director prize that year. Spike Lee, having finally gotten his long-overdue first Best DIrector nod, for BlacKkKlansman, had to settle for winning Best Adapted Screenplay. In an alternate universe, Lee also wrote and directed Green Book, with Ali as the star and a killer jazz score by Terence Blanchard.

Last year’s 93rd Academy Awards saw only one black acting nominee – Cynthia Erivo for her turn as Harriet Tubman in Harriet. One, out of twenty nominees.

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet

We’ve mainly discussed acting awards and nominations, but it’s important to note that the number of Oscars and nominations for black people in other categories are even worse. Best Cinematography – two nominees total, no winners. Best Film Editing – two nominees total, no winners. Best Costume Design – five nominations between two women (the legendary Ruth E. Carter took home the prize two years ago for Black Panther). Best Director – no winners and a total of six nominations for black men (no black women have been nominated thus far, though that could change this year – Regina King has already been nominated for the Best Director Golden Globe for One Night in Miami).

One NIght in Miami

2020 was a year in which the struggle for civil rights reached an apex. Massive protests erupted all across the country over the summer, brought on by the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis PD. Black people still need to fight to exist – in their homes, in their cars, at their jobs – free of persecution and discrimination. The rise of the white supremacy movement during Trump’s presidency has made this fight even more difficult. Hollywood, as a microcosm of our larger society, still has a long way to go as well. Parity is needed both in front of and behind the camera.

Several years ago, when #OscarsSoWhite was created to address the lack of diversity in Hollywood, my husband sincerely asked me to explain it to him. His thought was “whoever is most deserving should get nominated”. Seems simple enough, right? Setting aside the fact that the Oscars don’t always nominate those most deserving, the problem, of course, is that if creative, talented people of color don’t get the same opportunities as white people, they’ll never have the chance to be rewarded. And it starts with allowing black people to tell their own stories – stories that make white people uncomfortable – stories where they are their own saviors.

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