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.
Photo courtesy of David Lohr Buesco via Flickr