The 89th Academy Awards: Has the academy finally moved on from the #OscarsSoWhite years?Top Highlights, Feature Story, Section 4A, Latest Issue Thursday, February 16th, 2017
It’s Oscar time 2017 but …
Once upon a time in a Hollywoodland not so far away, Academy Awards were first presented for outstanding film achievement. That was 1929. All the political leaders were white, segregation reigned, and some people had to ride in the back of busses. And all the Oscar nominees and recipients were white.
Fast forward to 1940, and the racial barrier was broken at the Academy Awards as Hattie McDaniel took home a statuette for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The ceremony was held at The Ambassador in Hollywood, a whites-only hotel. America had not really changed.
It was 1964 before another African American would win an Oscar for acting, this time Sidney Poitier for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field. It was a breakthrough surprise win coming at the height of the civil rights movement.
The nation was changing rapidly, but the Academy? Not so much. It would be 19 years before another black actor, Louis Gossett Jr., would win an Oscar for his supporting role in An Officer and a Gentleman.
There have now been 14 black actors taking home the gold, including Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman and Octavia Spencer. Still not a strong track record for Hollywood. After two years of all-white nominees, there was an uproar last year leading to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was not a compliment. There were even calls to boycott the Oscars.
The reality is that it has long been Hollywood-So-White. But why?
From its early days, Tinseltown’s producers, financiers, power brokers, studio heads, agents and actors have been overwhelmingly white. Like 98 percent. They have held the “keys to the kingdom” and viewed the world through a very white lens. The black experience or Latino culture was not something on their radar, so they never considered it would be of interest to others.
While there are passionate independent filmmakers who work on a “shoestring” budget for their art, the overall business of Hollywood is making money. Films released in 2016 have so far domestically grossed well over $11b. Yes, the “b” is billion. There was, and still is to a large degree, a perception that majority white audiences will not go to see a film with an all or principally non-white cast. They have been viewed as the ones with the money, the ones who go regularly to the movies.
Even in the glitz and political correctness of Hollywood, prejudice sneaks in, sometimes with a thud. Think the surprise win of Crash over Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture in 2006. Did one of the most acclaimed films of all time lose out on an Oscar because of its gay theme? Some believe so. In 2015 Selma was nominated for Best Picture but received only one other minor nod, for Best Song. Odd that a film nominated for the highest honor didn’t warrant recognition for screenplay or acting or film editing. Did this worthy movie direct, film and score itself?
By the numbers, 338 acting Oscars have been handed out (there have been two ties and the supporting acting categories were added in 1937). Only 4 percent have gone to African Americans. Just 3 or less than 1 percent have gone to Hispanics, and only 2 to Asians. Putting that in glaring perspective, 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, 17 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. Only four times has a black man been nominated for Best Director; only four women have achieved that distinction; and just one of those eight, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010, has won.
But wait, could things finally be changing?
This year’s nominee pack sports perhaps the greatest diversity ever for Oscar nominations. A record six of this year’s acting nominees are African American and a seventh (Dev Patel in Lion) is Hindu Indian. And there are others like Taraji P. Henson, who likely just missed the cut. Early favorites in the Supporting Acting categories are both African American: Viola Davis for Fences and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. In the Best Actor category, Denzel Washington is in the thick of the race for gold. Should he win, it would be his third Oscar, tying him for the most by a male actor with Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis and the 1940s Walter Brennan.
Three of this year’s Best Picture nominees consist of all or predominantly black characters. Moonlight masterfully tells the story of three stages in a young man’s life as he deals with bullying, a drug-addicted mother and his gay sexuality. Fences is a powerful family drama of love, clashing values and infidelity. And Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of three female mathematicians who were instrumental in the early stages of the space program at NASA.
Why the turnaround?
With the growing cultural and ethnic diversity in the U.S. population, audiences are also becoming more varied. Technology is bringing more cross-cultural exposure. The success of movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (from Taiwan), Slumdog Millionaire (set in India) and films by black directors like Spike Lee and Tyler Perry (the Madea movies) show that American audiences are willing to step out of their usual motion picture comfort zones. They are increasingly open to seeing themselves in characters regardless of race or nationality. Hidden Figures has become the most successful film ever featuring a set of African American female leads.
Hollywood prides itself at being on the cutting edge of progressive issues from climate change and marriage equality to women’s rights and race relations. It now cringes at any perception of being racist or phobic, and stars often use their platform to speak out. It’s very possible the pure embarrassment, or call it awakened awareness, of the lack of diversity has aided in more variety among nominees.
The 6,687-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a concerted effort at change, adding 683 new members, many of them people of color and women. They are also making strides to prune voters no longer active in the movie industry.
Yet, the number one reason for a diversity turnaround may be so simple, it is easily overlooked: Great roles in great movies. All the above-mentioned 2016 films, along with others with an outstanding African American presence like The Birth of a Nation and Loving, were top-notch films with powerful stories and stellar performances. Fairly or not, the 2015 and 2016 awards season offered, with a couple exceptions, no comparable films or performances to match this year’s.
Could the last two years with a drought of non-white nominees just be anomalies? After all, though not widely touted, 12 Years a Slave in 2014 became the first black-themed movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. It will take five to 10 years to see if the racial diversity of this year’s awards is a genuine trend or a blip.
There will always be a need and a place for films that illuminate the minority experience in history and contemporary life. Yet, we will know we have arrived at a color-blind plain when we see superb films like La La Land or Manchester by the Sea with lead actors who tell everyday stories in which the main characters just happen to be black. Or Asian or Indian or Hispanic. And we just happen to flock to see them. And feel like singing “Hooray for Hollywood.”
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