The 2016 Oscars are just around the corner, and many are still contemplating whether or not to boycott one of the year’s most watched awards shows for failing to nominate a single black actor, actress or director for the second year in a row.
There is a long history of protest against racial inequity in Hollywood, going back to the early 1900s, and interestingly enough, 100 years later, we are having the same discussions. Which raises the question: Should black viewers even bother protesting the Oscars?
The black press, civil rights organizations and black film icons have historically and openly challenged Hollywood’s race problem. There have been marches, tune-outs, tweet-outs and the like, but to what extent has black protest affected Hollywood’s treatment of blacks in front of and behind the camera?
Check out a timeline of black protest in Hollywood to see the ongoing fight for better representation, inclusion and acknowledgment, not to mention all-out rebuttals of racism against blacks in Hollywood.
On March 21, The Birth of a Nation is screened for President Woodrow Wilson, becoming the first film shown at the White House. Led by its Hollywood branch, the NAACP calls for the film to be censored and then banned, neither of which occurs. Riots break out in major cities, with whites attacking black moviegoers, some of whom openly weep at the depiction of blacks in the film. The NAACP then organizes a nationwide protest against the film, targeting studios, theaters, state buildings and courthouses.
In response to The Birth of a Nation, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (the latter, a Universal Pictures contract actor) found the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., producing middle-class melodramas like The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and A Trooper of Troop K (1917) and their best-known film, The Birth of a Race (1918). Emmett J. Scott, a trusted aide to Booker T. Washington, produces and directs the film. The Johnson brothers’ movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, concepts foreign to most mainstream films at that time.
NAACP Executive Director Walter White collaborates with politicians and major-studio executives to establish an ad hoc committee to monitor the image and portrayal of African Americans on-screen.
Film-industry publication Variety runs a series of articles asking why there aren’t better roles for black actors.
The NAACP’s Hollywood branch creates the NAACP Image Awards (a direct response to a 1966 television boycott of Amos ’n’ Andy by the NAACP).
Funded independently, Melvin Van Peebles releases Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Made for $500,000, the film earned $10 million at the box office, with Van Peebles renting out theaters in major cities to screen the film. Van Peebles’ model of film distribution was the precursor to alternative distribution methods used by black independent filmmakers like Spike Lee, Matty Rich, Christine Swanson, Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay (AFFRM, now Array) to get their films screened. Van Peebles’ movie also served as the filmmaking and financing model employed by major Hollywood studios like United Artists to make millions of dollars to restore their financial solvency by producing blaxploitation-era films.
1960s to 1980s
The “Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers,” aka the L.A. Rebellion, emerges. African and African-American filmmakers enter UCLA film school committed to creating black-centered narratives that challenge Hollywood tropes and practices. Filmmakers include Alile Sharon Larkin (The Kitchen, 1975), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1977), Larry Clark (Passing Through, 1977), Julie Dash (Four Women, 1977), Jamaa Fanaka (Penitentiary, 1979), Haile Gerima (Bush Mama, 1979), Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1982) and Zeinabu Irene Davis (Cycles, 1989). The rebellion films were also challenging the stereotypical representations of blacks in blaxploitation films.
The Tree of Life Awards (also known as the Black Oscar Awards) launch. At the time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had nominated only 27 African Americans in the 52-year history of the Oscars, with only three winning. The Tree of Life Awards were created to acknowledge and reward black talent in front of and behind the camera because of the near-exclusion of blacks from major categories at mainstream film-industry awards shows.
On Feb. 19, Variety carries the front-page banner “NAACP faults film employment.” The NAACP releases a “white list” at a press conference, naming 43 films “in which the organization says blacks have been excluded from significant roles in front of and behind the cameras,” according to Variety. Every major studio was represented on the list of movies.
Actor and filmmaker Robert Townsend directs and stars in Hollywood Shuffle, a comedy examining racism and stereotyping in the Hollywood film industry.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition announces an Oscar boycott. Only one black person was nominated for the 1996 Oscars. Director Dianne Houston was nominated for Tuesday Morning Ride, a live-action short. Actors like Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat and Will Smith, who starred in box-office giants Independence Day and Bad Boys (along with Martin Lawrence), were overlooked; and films like Tim Reid’s critically acclaimed Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (1995) and Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), the latter starring Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, were snubbed.
On March 18, People magazine’s cover chronicles the “Hollywood Blackout” at the 68th Academy Awards (hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones). The inside article asks, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?,” showcasing an all-white Academy Awards audience and asking why critically acclaimed black films were overlooked.
April Reign (@ReignofApril) coins the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to the 2015 Academy Awards’ lack of acting, directing or creative nominations for blacks.
There are no African-American nominations for acting or directing categories despite strong critical reviews and box-office returns for Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Creed.
In January, Jada Pinkett Smith (whose husband, Will Smith, starred in the film Concussion) challenges the Academy Awards on the blackout and states that she will not be attending.
Spike Lee, who received an honorary Oscar in November 2015, announces that he, too, will boycott the Oscars.
#OscarsSoWhite re-emerges on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.