Race, Diversity, and the Oscars

Much attention was paid to the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations: not one black performer or director was nominated this year.  Sadly, that is not uncommon!

NO black director has EVER won the coveted Academy Award, nor has a black director ever won the Best Picture Award.  In fact, in 88 years, only THREE black directors have even been nominated:  John Singleton in 1991 (for “Boyz N the Hood”), Lee Daniels in 2009 ( “Precious”), and British director Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave” in 2013. While director Spike Lee has received Oscar nominations for screenwriting and documentary, he’s never been nominated for Best Director or Best Picture.

(Just a note:  four women have been nominated for Best Director, but only one – Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 – have won).

So African-Americans have been ignored for their directorial abilities. What about performances?

The first African-American performer to win an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress) was actress Hattie McDaniel in 1939, for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”    Not everyone in the African-American community celebrated this win, though;  as many pointed out, McDaniel’s role seemed to reinforce racial stereotypes, not point the way to new opportunities for African-American actors and actresses.

Hattie McDaniel GWTW The organizers of the Oscar ceremony (it was a dinner/dance format) argued whether to even invite McDaniel to the awards ceremony; when they did issue her an invitation, she was seated at a table in the back of the room.   The Oscar trophy did not open any doors for her;  most of her later roles were as cooks or maids, which sadly, was true for most black actors through the 1950s.

The next black woman to earn the same award was Whoopi Goldberg – in 1990, 51 years after McDaniel’s win. (She won it for her perfomance in “Ghost”).  No wonder Goldberg was so eager to make her digs into the Academy’s lack of diversity on last night’s Oscar show!

Whoopi Goldberg

No black man won the Best Supporting Actor award until Louis Gossett, Jr., for his performance in “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1982.  Since then, three other African-American actors have also won that Oscar:  Denzel Washington in 1989 for “Glory”, Cuba Gooding, Jr. for “Jerry Maguire” in 1996 (amazing performance!), and Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

Lou Gossett JrArguably the more desired Oscar is for Best Actor or Best Actress.   The first black man to receive the Best Actor Oscar was Sidney Poitier in 1962 for “Lilies of the Field.”  However, Poitier was a citizen of the Bahamas when he won the award; the first African-American awarded the Best Actor Oscar was Denzel Washington in 2001 for “Training Day.”  (He already had an Oscar on his mantel – Best Supporting Actor, remember?)

Denzel WashingtonWhile a mere 10 black actresses have been nominated for Best Actress, only ONE has ever won that Oscar:  Halle Berry for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.”

Halle BerryThe first black actress to be nominated for that Oscar was Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 for “Carmen Jones”.  Other nominees include Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Viola Davis.  It is astounding to consider all of the black actresses whose work has been ignored:  Lena Horne and Ruby Dee are two that immediately come to mind.

88 years of nominations;  over 2000 nominating opportunities.  And still, in 2016, African-American performers and directors are still ignored by the powerful in Hollywood.   Seems like it’s time for major changes in the movie industry!

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