No black actors in the Oscars—again? Why are the Oscars still so white?
“Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. joked recently that in order “…to make a hit black movie, you need a whip, a firehouse, or a negro spiritual.”
Wood Jr. further pointed out that even when Oscar does acknowledge black movies, the Academy nominates only the Caucasians therein. Like Sylvester Stallone for “Creed,” and “Straight Outta Compton‘s” white screenwriters, who, he further joked, were probably “straight outta Cornell.”
Lotta jokes. Well, like they say, at this point, with this situation, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Like all such jokes, they’re not, really. Let’s take a realistic look at how soon we can expect #OscarStillSoWhite to change.
If MLK Can’t Even Get Respect …
Last year, stellar British thespian David Oyelowo, who absolutely crushed the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” and got no Academy love, said that the Oscars simply do not reward roles wherein blacks play leaders.
“Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings, or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward.”
A good example of which would be Denzel Washington getting no Academy love whatsoever playing powerful civil rights leader Malcolm X.
Oyelowo went on to say, “We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals. We’ve been all those things. But we’ve been leaders, we’ve been kings, we’ve been those who change the world. And those films, where that is the case, are so hard to get made.”
True, for the most part. Denzel Washington and Lupita Nyong’o both won Oscars for playing slaves who endured the two all-time worst horse-whippings ever seen on the silver screen—watching both those scenes back-to-back would probably cause measurable psychological damage.
But it took 50 years to get an electrifying, heroic (as well as humanly flawed) portrayal of Martin Luther King, on the big screen.
And Yet …
But it’s not that cut and dried or easily categorized. While it’s true that of the 328 Best Actor and Actress Academy Awards given out since the birth of Oscar, only 15 of them have been awarded to black actors—a number of those, um … 15 … roles, are not subservient.
Such as Lou Gossett, Jr.’s first-ever African-American Best Supporting Actor Oscar win in 1982 for Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” whose toughness and mentoring turned Richard Gere’s character into a man. Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Ron Tidwell of “Show me the money!” fame, in “Jerry Maguire” could hardly be described as subservient.
However, while Oyelowo’s broad categorizations are not exactly water-tight, and one cannot claim categorically that Oscar only rewards a certain spectrum of black roles, I’m splitting hairs and playing devil’s advocate here, because one almost can.
Is #OscarSoWhite Same as It Ever Was?
As I said in my review of the movie “Supremacy,” “…by and large, ‘white’ America’s gotten pretty ‘black’ since the 1960s (not to mention Jamaican). White men dance and jump, blond dreadlocks are a thing, and Larry Bird was the most dangerous trash-talker in the NBA. Amy Winehouse‘s jazz-singing and Joss Stone’s soul-singing sound black, 60, and Southern, except they’re white, 27, and British. And some black folks ride Harleys and swear by country music. The racial brew in the global melting pot has done a lot of melting. Still quite a ways to go though.”
So it’s fairly safe to say 2016’s #OscarStillSoWhite” is not your grandfather’s “Drinking Fountain for Whites Only.” America’s melting pot is definitely “a watched pot that never boils.” But it will.
A few weeks ago, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy president (who is black) made this statement:
“… I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.
“As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”
“This isn’t unprecedented for the Academy. In the ’60s and ’70s it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”
Write What You Know
“Write what you know,” is the first thing taught to writers. White writers, many of whom don’t have any black friends (much like the hilarious scene in Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck“), write what they know. And there are , naturally, few or no black roles in there.
There are not a lot of white roles in Tyler Perry’s movies either. But that’s okay. Black people didn’t get the 40 Acres and a mule General William T. Sherman promised (he never promised the mule). We got Spike Lee’s production company instead, and so Spike and Tyler can jolly well cast all-black if they want to—for a while—as pay-back.
I jest, of course, but what it’s going to take is more black writers writing what they know. And it’s going to take the melting pot melting some more—so that white writers know some more black people, and black writers know some more white people. Then we’ll have some diversity.
But in the mean time, with the world falling to pieces around us, why don’t we all—ahem—just practice counting our blessings? Like SNL’s Tracy Morgan did when he said, “They say every Jewish man is supposed to love one black (expletive omitted) in this life. I’m glad Lorne Michaels chose me.”
Upcoming Oscar host Chris Rock has said, after all: “The Black community doesn’t have that many movies, so if there’s only four Black movies in a year, and two of them star Black men in dresses, I could see how that would upset some people. But that’s a job for some people. Tyler Perry is great in a dress, but I don’t want to see Denzel or Will Smith in a dress. And I don’t think we’re in any danger of seeing that.”
Let’s hope not. If we start seeing Denzel Washington in a dress, it’s highly likely that’ll be called #OscarSoRIP.