What does it take to win an Oscar?
In early 2018, the timing of the junket for Black Panther presented me with an interesting opportunity. Daniel Kaluuya had just been nominated by the Academy for his poignant portrayal of a Black man being hijacked for his physical gifts in Get Out. Having just screened Black Panther, I was convinced that Ryan Coogler’s ambitious story of a royal family torn asunder by the sins of its patriarch was no mere comic book film, and could warrant consideration by the Film Academy. Daniel, who played a nationalist security leader named W’Kabi, agreed with my assertion.
“I said the hashtag to Marvel is ‘BP for BP. Black Panther for Best Picture, man,” he told me at the time. “That’s how we have to flex it. I think this is a film that’s up there.”
Inspired by social media movements like #OscarsSoWhite, movie fans and journalists were giving critical thought to what types of films and roles were being consider for awards, particularly those featuring African-Americans and people of color. In the 90-year history of the Academy Awards, Black actors and movies have won only 18 out of 85 nominations in the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor. With such a dismal batting average, I endeavored to get some answers as to why this was the case. So for the past year I’ve been asking actors, actresses and directors who have either been nominated for an Academy Award or won, what they feel is in the DNA of an Oscar-worthy film or performance, how it has impacted their careers and if it even matters.
The answers ranged from light-hearted to serious, but all shared a common theme—the work is most important.
“I don’t know what they look for. Maybe it’s the one tear thing. Maybe it’s the intensity,” says Lakeith Stanfield, who starred in the Oscar-winning Get Out and last year’s Sorry to Bother You. His co-star Tessa Thompson suggested that what is society's mood has some impact on what gets nominated. “I think it’s also what’s in the zeitgeist. What’s happening culturally,” she says. “You look back at things that won the Oscar and I think it feels like a post card. Like the fact that Driving Miss Daisy won an Oscar the same year Do the Right Thing was out. It’s sort of like, I dunno. I feel like I’m gonna get in trouble for saying that. Sometimes it’s a sign of the times. Then of course there are performances that are classic and withstand whatever…like if Get Out didn’t win the Oscar…” Stanfield finishes her sentence, “I kind of feel like it didn’t. Not the right one.” Get Out won for Best Original Screenplay, but was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.
Mahershala Ali agrees with Thompson, that political climate can have some influence on the nominations. He starred in 2016’s Moonlight, which took home three trophies for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and the coveted Best Picture.
“I think there’s always an awareness of what’s resonating with people anytime award season comes along,” says Ali, who has earned another Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book. “ I remember several years back it was Slum Dog Millionaire and Curious Case of Benjamin Button that felt like they were sort of like neck and neck, and I remember at that time we were going through a financial crisis. And here it is we make this big, large, blockbuster Hollywood movie with Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but what was resonating with people was the Slum Dog Millionaire story…you can’t separate film from culture and culture from film.”
Academy veterans like Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock and Michael Douglas had a more pragmatic stance on worthiness. Washington, who has won two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Glory) and Best Actor (Training Day) insisted that he doesn’t think about awards when he is looking at a performance. However, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, who hold three Oscars between them and starred in 2018’s Ocean’s 8, humorously admit that there are some qualifiers.
“An impediment,” Bullock jokes, alluding to films like My Left Foot. “You got to have, like, a clubbed foot or your’e dying.” “I’d also say being in a good movie,” says Blanchett.
It went along like this throughout the year, polling the veteran and neophyte talent, not just about what it took to win a trophy, but what was life like after winning one. While it is easy to dismiss awards like the Oscars as not being relevant or necessary for Black talent, my years of covering the entertainment industry tell me otherwise. Certain doors open when you are recognized in circles, and it can make the difference in check writing and decision making power, which is critical to underrepresented groups getting their stories told.
“It’s been amazing,” says Barry Jenkins, who directed 2018’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight. His latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is up for three awards this year, including Best Adapted Screenplay. “I write an email and people respond. I make a phone call and people pick up. We’re working on this show for Amazon… and the main character in that book is a young Black woman. And it was important to me to have young Black women in the writers room for that show. And now as a person with an Oscar, a person in power, I was able to say these two young Black women don’t have experience writing in television, but I need them in my writers room. And nobody said no. And now those young women are on their second and third TV shows.”
That opportunity is key. It’s fruitless to campaign for more films by and including Black creatives to win awards if they can’t get made in the first place. Director Steve McQueen, whose film 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture in 2013, stated in an interview that winning allowed him to "make one more mistake," and I asked him to elaborate.
“Well, I think certain people are allowed to make more mistakes than others,” he said while discussing his latest film, Widows. “I think as a Black person you can make maybe one and a half, and that’s about it, you’re done. I think more people like myself and you and others have to get in positions of power. You can’t get things handed to you, you have to take control. You have to own your own studio and have control over content. We can’t wait for people to wake up, you have to do it ourselves.”
His Widows star and Oscar winner Viola Davis also feels that opportunity to create is just as important, if not more so, than the awards.
“I would say that for any actor, any person, you’ve got to be the change of what you want to see out there for your career, once you hit a certain level. It’s like going into someone else’s house and try to make the rules. If you get any kind of leverage in the business, then you have to find the material. If it’s that important to you, that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to produce it, you’ve got to find it. You’ve got to shore it up with actors, a director. That’s the change that you’re seeing now in Hollywood.”
What about the Academy? The almost 100-year institution has earned a reputation for being detached from the movie-going audience. Actress, comedian and Academy member Whoopi Goldberg feels that the perception of who makes the decisions during award season is skewed.
“Maybe people forget. We are an Academy. We’re the Academy of Arts and Sciences,” she told me during the promo for the comedy Nobody’s Fool. “Which tells you that we’re looking at movies not as people look at movies when they go to see a movie. We’re looking for very specific things. People always say, ‘The Oscars are this, the Oscars are that.’ But that’s what we do, we’re awarding people in our category. So it’s camera or sound. The sound guy isn’t going to see this movie because just because he’s going to see it at Oscar season. He’s listening to it for a different reason.”
Nevertheless, there is an impasse between the Academy and audiences that must be overcome. The art pieces that film peers rave over are often not seen by the general public, and box office blockbusters rarely get recognition from the Academy, unless it’s in a technical or music category. Comic book films and comedies have the tallest hill to climb.
“The first Ant-Man was my first green-screen film,” says Michael Douglas, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1987 for Wall Street. “I had never done a green-screen film in my life and I got a whole new appreciation for acting when there’s nothing there… People do a brilliant job. But so much of it involves things outside of your character. In the same way comedy never gets the proper attention come Academy time. Comedy is tough to do. Comedy is much harder to do than drama. We all love if we have a funny friend, we cherish it more than our serious friends, but it never gets the credit.”
If anyone knows how tough comedy is it’s Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. While Kevin doesn’t seem too pressed about recognition for comedy, Haddish is taking steps to bring more attention to her peers.
“Well now that I’m a member of the Academy I think that will change,” says the co-star of Night School and Nobody’s Fool. “I’m gonna do what it takes to play the political role that can be played and get a comedy nominated.”
It will take a concerted effort by talent new and old, Black and white to see meaningful change. But is there common ground for the movie-going public and the Academy?
“Now should there be a different category for movies that are just crowd pleasers? Maybe,” says Whoopi. “But I always want to tell people, they always say, ‘It’s just old white men sitting around.’ It’s actually not. It’s all of us sitting around in our categories saying, ‘I think this is great, this is what I’m voting for for X, Y, and Z.’ So everybody relax. Relax. Nobody’s trying to keep anybody down. Nobody.”
The 91st Academy Awards will air on February 24.
(Photo credit MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)