‘And the Oscar goes to…’
There’s a significant chance the name that follows belongs to a white, middle class American or European at this year’s Academy Award ceremony – the Oscars. The diminishing diversity is especially discernible in the most prestigious categories: Best Actor/Actress in a leading or supporting role, Director, and Screenplay. To my utmost surprise, only a few categories fall outwith this ‘status quo’, presenting at least a wider pool of phenotypes (including Latin American and Asian artists). Yet the only film nominated that focuses on a topic concerning black history, ‘Selma’, has probably a small shot at best at taking home the gong for ‘Best Film’ (10 nominees in this category) and ‘Best Soundtrack’.
“We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we’ve been leaders. We’ve been kings. We’ve been those who change the world. Those films where that is the case are so hard to get made.” – David Oyelowo
Oyelowo portrayed Martin Luther King in ‘Selma’, and critics were shocked when his name didn’t drop at the Academy’s nomination ceremony earlier this year. But is he right in pointing out that black actors and actresses in particular have a hard time being nominated by a, for the most part, white, Anglo-Saxon, male board? Reading between the lines, does it mean the Academy, supposedly representing the majority of those working in the entertainment business, prefers actors of colour in subservient roles?
In honour of Black History Month, let’s have a look at the Academy’s list of black winners (whereby I am not focusing on nominations, because, let’s face it, ‘the winner takes it all’): In total there are only 14 wins, a number that is shockingly small, seeing we are about to celebrate the 87th ceremony, and over 200 awards in total were handed out in the acting category alone.
The first ever Oscars were held in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1940 that Hattie McDaniel was honoured for her portrayal in ‘Gone with the Wind’ with an award as ‘Best Actress in a Supporting Role’, making her the first ever Afro-American to win an Oscar. She played a ‘house servant’.
And it should take another 24 years before another black actor, Sir Sidney Poitier, got the nod in the category ‘Best Actor’ for his take on the role of an itinerant worker in ‘Lilies of the Field’.
Now, there are a couple of more winners but 2002 certainly marked an especially successful award season for two black entertainers: Both Denzel Washington (‘Training Day’) and Halle Berry (‘Monster’s Ball’) received the highest accolades as ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’. Although the two were playing rather stereotypical roles – Washington portraying a corrupt cop, Berry a struggling, yet determined wife – these two awards represent milestones in the Academy’s history.
However, when considering all of the wins and nominations it is quite obvious that these two winners, apart from Forrest Whitaker’s portrayal of dictator Idi Amin in ‘The Last King of Scotland’ – for which he received an Oscar in 2007 -, seem to have been two of the few exceptions to the otherwise rigidly followed mantra of awarding actors for roles that are either entertaining (Jamie Foxx in ‘Ray’, Jennifer Hudson in ‘Dreamgirls’) or portray them as the good and loyal sidekick (basically all the other winners).
Upon reexamining the example of Denzel Washington, however, critics were astonished when the actor did not win an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X in the movie of the same title in 1993. Referring back to Oyelowo, who is quite coincidentally in a similar position – except he didn’t even get nominated – does this prove the Academy’s reluctance to honour black actors for playing strong, powerful, leading characters? Particularly if these characters are historical figures in the United States, such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King?
This year’s Oscars show a fallback of the Academy into a time we should have and, I believe, have passed long ago. Sure, some might say the quality of this year’s entries of black artists was just not ‘Oscar-worthy’, and they might be right. However, what Oyelowo wants to point out is not the fact that black artists seem to be less appreciated and acknowledged in the awards category but that, generally speaking, there are not enough movies, scripts, and stories focusing on the accounts of strong black characters. By awarding or at least taking black actors and actresses into consideration for their portrayal of powerful leading parts, the Academy, and all the other influential boards in Hollywood, New York, Paris etc., could swipe the road for more movies that showcase profound black characters.
I’m watching this year’s Oscars, simply because it has become a ritual of mine, but I am quite certainly hoping for higher diversity next year.
Maria was listening to ‘Written in the Stars’ by Tinie Tempah while writing this article.