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And the Oscar Goes To… Y.T.

  • by
  • January 28, 2011
  • 6:34 am
And the Oscar Goes To… Y.T.

Love them or hate them, there is no denial that America has a special addiction to the Academy Awards.  There’s no hidden reason why- films are stories we can relate to, and so when we root for one as if it were our hometown football team, what we’re really hoping to see win is a part of ourselves that we’ve invested in a particular story or role.  And when that movie does win, a piece of ourselves gets validated.  The stars that headline the Oscar nominations are more like intimate strangers than celebrities, and our near-obsession over their success is a better gauge, in many ways, of American culture than our current electoral system.  

So it should come as no surprise the screeching halt excitement over the Oscars took when reports emerged commenting on this year’s lack of racial diversity, calling the 2011 Academy Awards nomination pool “the whitest in ten years.”  Of all ten movies nominated for best picture, not one stars a black actor in a lead role.  Twenty actors were nominated for various awards; not one is black.  Or even Asian or Latino.  Only one is of color- Javier Bardem from Spain, nominated for Best Actor in Biutiful.  He’s not really “of color,” so to speak, but European.  Quite a far cry from the “era of unprecedented possibility” that Spike Lee forecasted for African-American filmmakers in 1990.

“These are some seriously white Oscars, I can’t lie,” said Movieline editor S. T. VanAirsdale.  “I kind of imagined Mo’Nique wanting to go all Precious upside Tom Sherak’s head with an ashtray this morning by the time they got to the end of the Best Picture category.”

Even Tyler Perry’s star-studded For Colored Girls didn’t get a single nomination because “it didn’t get a great critical reception, and it didn’t turn into a crossover hit,” Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday told PopEater.  “Tyler Perry is a very successful pop entertainer who isn’t yet taken as a serious director, and that movie fell by the wayside.  It wasn’t a legit contender.”

And Kerry Washington and Denzel Washington, both of whom were in two films this year, were in the wrong genre.

LA Times and Hollywood Reporter saw this coming in September when they noticed that this awards-season of films didn’t feature any African-Americans, either in front or behind the camera.  Last month, African-American blog The Grio joined in on the predictions:

“As award season approaches, there is a distinct possibility that there won’t be a single African-American nominated in a major Academy Award category for the first time since 2000. There will most likely be the usual griping about the lack of diversity when it comes to Hollywood’s highest honor. But before the hating begins, black film fans should ask themselves: Is prejudice really behind the paucity of quality black films and roles or are we not spreading the love with our pocketbooks enough to get good work recognized?”

You could claim the racism card, but the blame, say prominent black filmmakers, goes deeper than the nomination process.

“I’m not sure what the Academy can do,” said VanAirsdale.  “One the one hand, they’re a historically lazy group of viewers who aren’t going to discover or nominate anything independently.”  Part of the reason why Precious was so successful last year was it because it was a Sundance hit.  This year, the Sundance darling is Winter’s Bone.

You can’t blame the Academy, the LA Times argued, which has handed out numerous nominations to minority actors in the past and awards to Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Louis Gosset, Jr., Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson, and Hattie McDaniel (also the first black nominated for an acting Oscar in 1939).  Just last year, Precious, which featured an African-American cast, garnered six nominations and a best supporting actress win for Mo’Nique.  Asian-Americans have been nominated in the past, with wins going to Yul Brynner for The King and I, Ben Kingsley for Gandhi, Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields, and a best directing nod went to Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain.  Rita Moreno, of Latina descent, won an Oscar for her role in West Side Story.

“The problem actually starts at the top,” says the LA Times.  Very few African-Americans work as studio execs, marketers, and publicists in Hollywood, and there are virtually no black filmmakers in the indie film community.  Dramas, not comedies, typically get Oscar attention, and “studio chiefs still believe that a drama with an African-American cast is box-office poison.”

“Despite the commercial and critical successes of Mr. Washington, Ms. Berry and especially Will Smith — all of whom have enjoyed a variety of roles that steadfastly defy stereotyping — Hollywood continues to view black moviegoers through a woefully circumscribed prism,” wrote The Grio. “To them, black movies are less mainstream products than they are niche. And let’s be frank: the overwhelming majority of black consumers give them ample reason for doing so.”

Which leaves the problem in the hands of us, the viewers, as well.  At the end of the day, “Hollywood will do anything to make a buck,” argues The Wall Street Journal, which means that execs will cast talent who will bring them the most box office revenues.  “It has always been about what sells,” said Black Filmmaker Foundation founder Warrington Hudlin, “which is as true for mainstream movies as it is for African-American movies.”  Think Classic Hollywood System, only democratized, supposedly, without the studio contracts.  

Filmmaking is a business, and like anything else out there trying to make money, it operates on the simple equation of supply and demand.  We can say we want more racial diversity in mainstream films and less niche roles for minority actors all we want, but if we don’t actively demand it, Hollywood isn’t going to supply it.  Faulty as the current system is, it works for execs because it makes money.  The only way audiences can repair a faulty system is to quit paying for it and instead invest in seeing crossover films that transcend racial barriers and show that skin color is not a niche, but a vital component to telling the story of our collective experiences.  

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Photo courtesy of David Lohr Buesco via Flickr

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28 comments

+ add your own
8:22AM PDT on May 5, 2011

thanks

1:00PM PST on Feb 16, 2011

What Oscar? Bored!

3:36AM PST on Feb 1, 2011

Thanks for the article.

12:12AM PST on Feb 1, 2011

It's like my mom always said: "If you can't find a problem, you're going to make one".

This is silly. As other commenters have pointed out, it's hardly racist. They picked out the best movies of the year, and the fact that many people, of all ethnicities, have been nominated in the past is proof that this racism bit is old news (at least in the AAs). There were some amazing movies this year, and I have a hard time finding a problem with the nominations (Even if Chris Nolan and Inception SHOULD have gotten a nod for best director, blast it).

Must be a slow news day.

2:53PM PST on Jan 31, 2011

I don't see the big deal. who even cares about those awards anyway? and if the movies were worthy, then ok.

9:51PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

The Oscars and other awards shows have become all about what designer both males and females are wearing. It's so boring. It takes too long. I don't bother any more. I did try to watch Golden Globes and Ricky was icky so I turned off the TV and read a good book.

8:29PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

thanx

3:21PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

Although Yul Brenner played in the King and I for many years he was not Asian; he was French!

3:08PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

The Oscars have always been about the self-aggrandizement that the industry has for itself. The public has been brow-beaten into this idea that being a "celebrity" is everything. You have to pin your favorite actor/actress/ jock/model on your wall and buy, buy, buy their products or their endorsed products.
I will record a show like that if there is a good host on it that I think may be entertaining and it generally takes me about 30-45 minutes to watch this 3-4 hour event. I haven't even bother taping one for a few years. I taped the Golden Globes since Ricky Gervais was the host and after about 5 minutes of his opening monologue I hit delete as it went from cute to poor in about 10 seconds flat and it never got any better. It taught me a lesson. There is no one worth the 30 minutes of living lost in watching the recorded Oscars.
It is a good idea to have an event where they award people in their field but give the world a break and make it a closed affair.

2:02PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

thx

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