Commentary: The Oscars Are So White That...

Commentary: The Oscars Are So White That...

Hollywood seems to reject Black actors when they play strong African-American figures.

Published January 16, 2015

After all these years, Hollywood still doesn't get it. That's the conclusion many have reached after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominations on Thursday.

Ava DuVernay's film Selma picked up nominations for Best Picture and Best Song but nothing else. DuVernay was snubbed in the Best Director category. Hollywood hasn't always taken women seriously as filmmakers.

Ava DuVernay is the ninth female director whose film was nominated for Best Picture but failed to earn a directing nod. When the Academy excluded director Barbara Streisand for her 1991 film Prince of Tides, Oscar host Billy Crystal lampooned the selection process in his opening monologue. "Seven nominations on the shelf," he sang. "Did this film direct itself?"

Racial diversity, however, seems to be the big controversy this year. David Oyelowo, who plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, did not get a Best Actor nomination. Nor did any other Black actors or actresses. And, ironically, the 87th Annual Academy Award nominees were announced on Dr. King's 86th birthday. The news also came just hours before Nielsen announced that the new Black-themed hip hop drama series Empire was dominating the TV ratings in its second week on the air, thus reflecting the changing diversity of audiences the film industry has been slow to acknowledge.

The Oscar picks were so white this year that Twitter immediately created a new hashtag to parody the selections. "#OscarsSoWhite they've asked Fred Armisen to play Obama in the opening number," The Daily Edge tweeted. And "#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a Person Of Color," tweeted Hari Kondabolu.

Mainstream media followed suit. The front page of the Oakland Tribune newspaper on Friday even ran the provocative headline: "And the Oscar for best Caucasian goes to..."

Some blame the racial demographics of the Academy voters, who are 94 percent white, 76 percent male and average 63 years in age. If the Academy were a state, it would be whiter than Utah or North Dakota.

Perhaps that explains part of it, but last year 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for best pictureLupita Nyong'o won Best Supporting Actress and John Ridley won Best Adapted Screenplay from the same lily white group. Considering last year's record, "it is hard to say the snubbing of 'Selma' is all about the demographics of the voters," CNN commentator LZ Granderson wrote this week.

He's got a point. Maybe it's strong Black roles that Hollywood resents. After all, Lupita Nyong'o won last year but she was playing a slave. Selma, on the other hand, depicted Black civil rights leaders fighting for their own freedom instead of the traditional Hollywood stories that often portray white characters saving us from oppression.

A new social media meme popped up Thursday depicting six of the seven Black women who have won Oscars in the 86-year history of the ceremony. It described them as Whoopi Goldberg (phony psychic), Halle Berry (abusive mother), Octavia Spencer (maid), Mo'Nique (abusive mother), Hattie McDaniel (maid) and Nyong'o (slave). The only Black woman left off the list was Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for her role as Effie White in Dreamgirls.

In contrast, eight Black men have won acting Oscars playing a broader diversity of roles, including music legend Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), Ugandan president Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), a civil war soldier (Denzel Washington) and a drill sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.). Then there's Cuba Gooding Jr., who won a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of self-absorbed football player Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire. But those achievements also come with complications.

Denzel Washington won a supporting actor award for playing a Civil War soldier fighting slavery but not for his iconic performance as the civil rights era revolutionary Malcolm X. Morgan Freeman won an Oscar for training a white woman how to fight in Million Dollar Baby but not for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela fighting for his own freedom in Invictus. And although Will Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his shape-shifting portrayal of the greatest fighter of all, Muhammad Ali, he lost that year to Denzel Washington's depiction of crooked cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day.

In other words, roles may make a difference. Even though African-American men have won several Oscars, not one Black actor has won an Oscar when portraying one of the four most famous Black men in recent history: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali. Those black roles aren't rewarded.

Maybe the surest sign that the Oscars are too white is that Fox News's token Black guy, Charles Payne, is complaining, not about the Oscars being white, but about Black people complaining that the Oscars are too white. Protesters need other priorities, he tweeted. Which leads to the perfect tweet from Ijeoma Oluo: "#OscarsSoWhite they just asked why you aren't protesting Black on Black crime."

Sometimes parody is the best answer to prejudice.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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