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.
Can it be that it was all so simple? Not quite. The historic 2002 victories experienced by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry have proven controversial for some from the moment the awards were handed out. There has long been an ongoing discussion among some African Americans that regarded these victories as tainted because the respective roles were considered so negative. Such sentiments are crystallized in this line from “Why?” the 2004 track by Jadakiss, “Why Halle have to let the white man pop her to get an Oscar?/Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” This distrust regarding the Academy’s true motivation in granting the award is rooted in Hollywood’s troubled racial history on this issue.
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.