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.

AP Images
AP Images

When Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever nominated for an Academy Award, arrived at the Ambassador Hotel for the 1940 ceremony, she was seated at a table on the extreme periphery of the auditorium. McDaniel had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress based on her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Though this seating assignment was quite insulting, such slights were not uncommon, as McDaniel had also been forced to miss the film’s Atlanta premiere due to southern Jim Crow laws. McDaniel would go on to win the Academy Award that evening in 1940, becoming the first African American to ever win the prestigious award. It would be 24 years before another African American would be declared an Oscar winner.

In the 61-year time span from 1940-2001, only five other African Americans—Sidney Poitier, Lou Gossett, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding (can we put an asterisk next to this one?)—won the distinct gold statuette in the prestigious acting categories. Of those six total awards, Sidney Poitier is the only one to have won in the Best Actor category for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963); all the others were for supporting roles.

So when Eddie Murphy stood up to present the award for Best Picture at the 1988 awards ceremony, the troubled racial history of Hollywood loomed large. Murphy, a comedian whose persona was generally apolitical, decided that the incongruity of his prominent presence at the 1988 ceremony, set against the lack of recognition for African Americans in Hollywood historically, was just too insulting to ignore. Murphy “went off,” chastising the gathered industry figures regarding Hollywood’s racism. He said that if one looked closely at the scattered history of African Americans receiving Oscars, that at the rate things were going, another African American probably would not be receiving an award until the year 2004.

Reports after the show were that the program’s producers, along with some of the celebrities at the event, vocalized their displeasure to Murphy, saying that his critique was both rude and inappropriate. Murphy is said to have responded to these criticisms the way that one would expect to him respond—shall we say, by loudly declaring that he was aggressively indifferent to their objections.

Some eight years after Eddie Murphy called out Hollywood, Jesse Jackson led a protest outside the Oscar ceremony over what he felt was a continued lack of inclusion for African Americans. Jackson’s protest was most certainly days late and quite a few dollars short—not to mention self-aggrandizing as one had come to expect of Jackson by this time—but his protest added another footnote to the long, troubled history of African Americans in Hollywood.

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.