The Troubled (Black) History of the Oscars

From Hattie McDaniel’s out-of-place seat assignment to the “Do the Right Thing” snub to Denzel’s win as a crooked cop, Todd Boyd surveys the last 70 years of the Academy Awards.

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Well, a lot has changed since Eddie Murphy decided to get in Hollywood’s collective ass—and since the man Cannonball Adderley once anointed as “The Country Preacher” led his 1996 protest. Starting in 2002, Hollywood has been a lot more generous in its recognition of African Americans. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson have all won awards since then. Of those six, only Freeman and Hudson have been in the best supporting categories, the rest won Best Actor or Best Actress.

Other milestones would include Sidney Poitier receiving a lifetime achievement award in 2002 and Chris Rock hosting the 2005 broadcast, joining Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Pryor as the only other African Americans to rock the mic as the program’s MC through the years.

Perhaps the most surprising and concurrently the most satisfying moment of note since 2002 involved watching Three 6 Mafia win the Oscar for Best Song in 2006. Not since Isaac Hayes donned a vest of chains while performing his own Oscar-winning song “Shaft” back in the early ‘70s have the Academy Awards been the site of such an unbelievably off-the-chain performance. In many ways, the unlikely success of Three 6 Mafia’s victory for a song titled “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” demonstrated that in 10 short years a lot had changed since Jackson had decided to protest the event. In other words, some might say if Three 6 Mafia can win singing about the existential struggles inherent to the pimp game, then perhaps at long last Hollywood had finally created a more level playing field for African Americans.

Then there are those who seem to conflate the NAACP Image Awards with the Oscars, assuming that because the Image Awards reward positive images, the Oscars automatically should do the same. With this in mind, as alluded to in the Jadakiss lyric, there is the belief that Hollywood ignored Denzel’s noble performance in Malcolm X (1992), while rewarding him for playing the especially corrupt cop Alonzo in Training Day (2001), the film for which he won his Best Actor award.

Denzel “should” have won for his role in Training Day, as this uncanny performance was outside the more comfortable range that he usually works within. By getting away from his movie star persona while immersed in the role of Alonzo, Denzel demonstrated an emotional range that indicated he was willing to get his hands dirty as an actor. He risked playing an unpopular character in the interest of expanding what was on the surface a potentially limited role. Training Day as a film is enjoyable, but it’s far from a cinematic classic—though Denzel’s performance in the film is indeed outstanding.