Does Winning an Oscar Really Help Black Actors?

Few have won, but of those who did, did it even make a difference?

Lupita Nyong'o winner of Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role poses in the press room during the Oscars at Loews Hollywood Hotel on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California.
Lupita Nyong'o winner of Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role poses in the press room during the Oscars at Loews Hollywood Hotel on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

For many actors, an Oscar nomination or win serves as validation in the competitive entertainment industry. It theoretically opens doors and leads to more opportunities, which is one reason minorities—instead of seeking accolades elsewhere—are seemingly determined to force the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to acknowledge the achievements of brown people.

“I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does,” said Selma actor David Oyelowo. “That acknowledgment changes the trajectory of your life, your career and the culture of the world we live in.”

History, however, has proved that Oscar wins don’t necessarily translate into stellar careers for black actors and actresses who receive them. Louis Gossett Jr., Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding Jr. are just a few whose wins didn’t catapult their careers.

That’s because an Oscar win can only get you so far, according to film critic and founder of the Black Reel Awards Tim Gordon.

“An Oscar doesn’t make you more talented. It just says for one year you were really, really good and you become part of this exclusive group,” Gordon told The Root. “Having an Oscar doesn’t make you a better actor.”

Lack of an Oscar doesn’t necessarily exclude you from securing great roles, either. Just ask Samuel L. Jackson. The win is about “the prestige. It’s not about it helping your career,” said Gordon.

So if an Academy Award doesn’t automatically result in more powerful roles and fatter checks, what’s the point? Why are actors of color practically demanding a seat at a table where they won’t necessarily be fed?

“It’s not just the performance that you do. It’s the entire season, the long dance,” explained Gordon. “Once you get nominated for an Oscar, you go on this six-week whirlwind. You’re always in the room with directors and screenwriters, and people start to bond from this experience and other opportunities come around. It’s about the process as well.”

It’s that networking that minority actors miss out on when they’re not even in the running for the win.

Gordon, however, doesn’t solely blame racism for the academy’s perpetual exclusion of minorities. He admits that he has a backlog of films to watch and review, and he can empathize with academy officials who likely haven’t had a chance to watch every movie that comes their way, either.

They’re inundated with submissions months leading up to the awards, and some films might just fall through the cracks. That’s not to excuse the oversights. That’s just more reason the process needs to be overhauled, as the academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has again supported.

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