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.
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.
His performance in Malcolm X, on the other hand, has generally been overrated. I’m not saying that his performance was terrible, not at all, what I’m saying is that he was Denzel in that film, not Malcolm X. While there is a certain enjoyment one gets from watching a master at work, there is a difference between being Denzel and being Malcolm. If you don’t believe me, watch the film again and then watch The Hurricane (1999), followed by American Gangster (2007) and then you’ll see that Ruben Carter, Frank Lucas and Malcolm X are all basically the same guy. Yet, the role of Malcolm X is the type of role that has historically been rewarded by the Academy, it’s just that in this case, the acting wasn’t always up to the level of the role, whereas in Training Day, the acting superseded the role.
If you’re really looking for a conspiracy though, go back to the 1990 Academy Awards, when Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee’s timely magnum opus was completely dissed, in a year when the Best Picture award went to the postmodern segregationist fantasy otherwise known as Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Kim Basinger nervously, but courageously pointed out the glaring omission of Do the Right Thing while presenting an award during the broadcast.
My reason for mentioning these examples is to demonstrate that the Academy Awards are very subjective; it is impossible to objectively evaluate a film or acting performance. What are the rules and standards that constitute a good performance versus a great performance, a good movie versus great cinema? When people argue about sports, at least there are statistics to inform the conversation. When arguing about the Oscars, though, it all comes down to one’s personal preferences.
This is because, at the end of the day, the Oscars are an elaborate promotion for the film industry. It’s all about PR and selling the product of Hollywood. The evening gowns and the tuxedos, the pomp and circumstance, the red carpet, all of this is in the interest of promoting the film industry. Hollywood has long been good at creating fiction—and the Academy Awards might just be their best fiction yet. For a long time African Americans were excluded from participating in this fiction. Now it seems that this has changed somewhat.
In other ways though, the intense focus on a film like Precious this year covers up the fact that there are so few substantive African-American films being produced these days that there are bigger issues at stake than simply winning another Academy Award. While such awards are great for the individuals in question, we have reached a point where another African American winning an Academy Award is less and less newsworthy, at least in the acting categories. Though African-American actors and actresses have fared much better at the Academy Awards as of late, any improvement over the way things were before 2002 must be considered relative to a previously dismal history.
Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.