For the first time ever, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences has elected an African American woman as their President. Before they did so, Cheryl Boone Isaacs already stood out as a member of the Board of Governors.
Part of the reason the Academy has been so utterly and completely white for the past 86 years is that their demographic matches their tastes. There have been years where diversity broke through — 1985, for instance, when Steven Spielberg used his box office clout to bring The Color Purple to the big screen. He was shamed for it and the film went 11/0 at the Oscars. There wouldn’t be another Best Picture contender with an all-black cast until Precious, nearly twenty years later.
The other significant moment in recent Academy history was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing being overlooked the same year Driving Miss Daisy made Academy history and now joins Argo as one of the few films to win without a director’s nomination. But the Academy has had its moments of redemption. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington winning the same year seemed, at the time, like maybe things had really and finally changed for black actors at the Oscars. But to date, Berry is still the only black actress who has ever won in lead. In 86 years. Viola Davis came close two years ago by winning the SAG, among others, but lost to Meryl Streep, who collected her long overdue third Oscar. To date, there have been ten black actresses nominated for lead, compared to 19 for black actors. The supporting categories, especially for women, feature the most wins (5/15).
Though John Singleton was the first black director nominated, his film did not get a corresponding Best Picture nod. Any attempts made by filmmakers like Denzel Washington were rejected by critics and thus, rejected by the Academy. But it would take Lee Daniels’ very moving film Precious, pushed forth by the Weinstein Co., for the Academy to finally nominate a black filmmaker for Picture and Director. It has happened only once. Its screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, became the first black screenwriter to win, believe it or not.
Back in the day, an actor had to have “crossover appeal,” which is how Halle Berry managed to sneak in a win. We know the Oscars are rarely about talent, but are about, instead, popularity and power. The reason it’s worth fighting for diversity within the Academy is to shift the power dynamic to eventually change the narrative.
For all of the complaining we do about the lack of diversity at the Academy with regard to African Americans, it is probably worse for Asians and Hispanics. The Academy has really only been about one thing for 86 years: white cinema. This was especially painful last year when writer/director/pioneer Ava DuVernay did not get selected as one of the original screenplay nominees for Middle of Nowhere. But DuVernay kicked down more than a few doors, specifically in how she was able to bring African American audiences to the art house.
2013 is going to push those limits, however. It isn’t just that the Weinstein Co. has taken on Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, it’s also that Steve McQueen is bringing 12 Years a Slave, and Spike Lee has Old Boy. It’s a new wave of African American filmmakers – how the critics respond, how the Academy responds, will ultimately write that history. Here’s hoping they notice.
I don’t know, ultimately, what the face of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy President will do for their efforts to diversify. I don’t know what having a black President of the United States has done for this country ultimately. But I know that change doesn’t come easy. It sometimes needs a lot of lube and a hard shove.
Many of my colleagues will simply not go there with this topic. They believe it should be over already, that skin color shouldn’t matter. And I totally agree: skin color shouldn’t matter. But it does. It does, because it’s not really about skin culture but about cultural dominance of one narrative over another. It’s about the early days of Hollywood and how it portrayed the African American community. It’s about now and how they portray the African-American community. It’s about artists who can’t get films made, or films that do get made but are then ignored by the Academy and panned by the critics because they aren’t “right” enough.
When we all look back on the bigger picture of Oscar history, it will be a relief to see that the Oscars, for once, has really matched the cultural shift happening in the rest of America. Obama’s election has turned our country back into a war zone. He has upset many on both the left and the right. But at the end of the day, a black President served two terms in the White House 150 years after the war ended slavery, shoving us violently towards change. The Jim Crow laws put in place very nearly assured that blacks would remain oppressed for as long as the law would stand. In 2013 the Supreme Court has overturned the Voting Rights Act, which was put in place after voter suppression prevented any changes being made. People died then for the cause. But there is no doubt that the demographics of the 2012 election made a lot of conservative whites angry.
The black community, more than any other, has been overtly and deliberately oppressed. That oppression should also be happening, in a more subtle fashion, but nonetheless obvious in Hollywood is unacceptable. That the Academy has taken a long hard look at their own past, and their present, and seen an awful lot of white faces is to their credit. After all, film history and film preservation must be inclusive because we can’t be telling just the one story.
No matter what the cynics will say, and believe me, there will be lots and lots, this is a fairly big deal for the Academy in a year where black talent has arrived in abundance. But it’s also a test of tastes and attitudes. Electing a black President won’t change those. I don’t think Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected because she was black — nor do I think Obama was elected because he was black. She worked hard for this. Nonetheless, it makes you sit up and take notice of the way the landscapes are beginning to shift on Wilshire Blvd.