African Americans and the Academy: “The worst year of Oscar diversity since 1998”

By Jada Fisher, Staff Writer

 

It began in 1939 with Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar for best supporting actress in Gone With the Wind. However, she had to accept her award apart from the white nominees and guests.

Though some African Americans like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx and Lupita Nyong’o have taken home the gold statue since McDaniel, the Academy’s lack of black nominations and wins have been more closely examined as of late.

There weren’t any blacks nominated for best lead actor and actress, or best supporting actor and actress this year. Three-hundred and thirty two Academy awards have been given for those categories since the Oscars existence. After last Sunday’s celebration still only 15 have been awarded to blacks.  Of the 2,971 Oscars awards given in history, 32 have gone to African Americans.

You may ask why aren’t black actors and actress winning or nominated at a higher rate? There are many factors that play a role. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film industry, the film crews, the types of roles and narratives created all contribute.

The Academy that winners typically thank during their acceptance speech is made up of 6,000 members in the film industry (actors, directors, writers and the like). Much like the celebrated talent, the members are not very diverse either: 94 percent of the members are white, 77 percent are male and the average age is 63 years old.

The way it works is actors vote for actors, directors’ vote for directors and so on.  If you ask me, this where the problem begins when it comes to nominations and winning votes.

The Huffington Post weighed in on the topic just a few weeks ago saying, “If white people are the overwhelming majority of an entire industry, and the awards created to honor that industry are decided on mainly by white people, how could anyone say this is a level playing field?”

According to The Huffington Post most people in the film industry work with people that they already know, said cinematographer Bradford Young.  One could infer that the film crews would be made up of familiar faces. I can understand reasons why producers and directors would do that, but it definitely does not incent inclusion. Young worked on the Best Picture nominated film, Selma.

Other factors that carry significant weight in my opinion are the roles and narratives African Americans play, write and win for.

“Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward,” said David Oyelowo during a Q&A at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

That is unfortunately true in several cases. McDaniel, Nyong’o, and Octavia Spencer won for their roles as maids and slaves. In 2001, Washington won for playing a criminal in Training Day. Monique’ and Gabourey Sidibe for Precious and, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset for What’s Love Got to Do With It were nominated portraying abuse.

Also many nominated films narratives tend to be biographical or historical. To me black people always win for the same kinds of roles, though I don’t have a problem with that it would be great to see African Americans play less stereotypical, complex roles.

Blacks have been nominated consecutively for best original song over the past couple of years.

What bothers me most, like anyone else are the nomination snubs. Like many, I was surprised to find out Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay of Selma was not nominated this year. The movie got two nominations and one win for best song; I definitely expected more of both. I am still appalled that “Lee Daniels: The Butler” was snubbed completely.

All in all, I do not think the Academy is completely behind in diversity, but they, as well as the film industry, could be more inclusive. I believe they will get better over time.

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