It hardly seems fathomable that only one black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, has been twice nominated for an Oscar. I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that black actresses are nominated at all. With Viola Davis leading the charge on the unexpected popularity of The Help, it’s time once again to turn our attention to this, what many of you call, the Affirmative Action Oscars.
We can go around and around about it but the simple fact remains: there are even fewer roles of strong black actresses than there are for strong white actresses and Oscar, though wins have been given out to women of color, like Mo’Nique and Jennifer Hudson, and Halle Berry, there aren’t the same kind of elevated star vehicles that their counterparts seem to get.
The stats — according to Wikipedia, here is the history:
Lead Actors – 18 total nominations, 4 wins
More than one nomination — Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington with three, Sidney Poitier and Will Smith with two. Of those, there were four wins.
Lead Actress – 8 total nominations and, horrifyingly, only 1 win. No actresses with two lead nominations
The only year where two black actresses were both nominated in lead was all the way back in 1972. Things were different in the ’70s, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Supporting Actor – 16 total nominations, 4 wins
Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Djimon Hounsou are the only black supporting nominees with two.
Supporting Actress – 16 total nominations, also 4 wins
No supporting black actress has ever been nominated twice. The most tragic span without wins was between Hattie McDaniel in 1939 all the way up to Whoopi Goldberg in 1990.
Whoopi Goldberg is currently the only black actress to be twice nominated for an Academy Award. How can this be? So many say the industry is to blame. The industry reflects the audience and the audience doesn’t pay so much to see films with black women in leading roles. The Oscars then reflect the industry, which reflects the public, which reflects politics and attitudes – it’s a snake eating its own tail. It’s a clusterfuck. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Myth #1 – there are no great black performances by women because the industry doesn’t allow them to make movies.
There are great performances by black women all of the time. They’re ignored by the award voting community unless there is either star power involved, a strong Best Picture contender involved, or the actress is popular enough (Whoopi Goldberg) to always be in the conversation.
Let’s look at a few good ones that were ignored over the years by some of the best in the business.
Halle Berry, Things We Lost in the Fire
Angela Bassett, Malcolm X
Ruby Dee, A Raisin in the Sun, Do the Right Thing
Halle Berry, Jungle Fever
Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee
Alfre Woodard, Crooklyn
Regina King, Jerry Maguire
I had to dig pretty deep for those. As I was searching I realized that what the white population thinks of what constitutes a good or great black performance is different from what the black community thinks.
For instance, The Great Debaters sunk with the mostly white critical/blogging community. It was completely written off (I really liked the film). Same goes for Akeelah and the Bee or Crooklyn or Inside Man or any Spike Lee film – again and again, these movies can’t really break through into the mainstream and thus are mostly ignored in the Oscar race.
Myth #2 black actors always play themselves and therefore aren’t praise-worthy (thanks to @JaquesCHIrock on Twitter for that). It’s absolutely true that performers like Gabby Sidibe from last year, for instance, but also Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah are simply being their charming selves and therefore don’t get versatility points their white actors get. It not only isn’t true but it’s yet another unfair pressure lobbed upon them. For instance, no one complains when Jack Nicholson wins for being Jack or Sally Field wins for being Sally Field or Katharine Hepburn for being Katharine Hepburn.
Myth #3 the Oscar should be judged on whether it’s the best performance of the year, not by the color of one’s skin. The day the Oscars become about good performances is the day we can abandon any sort of talk of unfairness. Black performers don’t get the same opportunities as white performers because audiences buy tickets to movies about white people, blah blah blah. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side. Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture. One simply can’t argue quality with all evidence to the contrary: Bullock won because of her general success and the money she made that year – very little of it had to do with her performance. Crash won because many voters didn’t even bother to see Brokeback Mountain and because Crash had the support of the all of the actors.
Let’s face it, the Oscar voters mostly do what is required of them. The critics, for the most part, lead. The critics are the ones, for the MOST PART, who rally around the white performances over the black ones. If the critics started paying more attention to the black performers — not judging them, necessarily, by how well they liked the movie but on the performance alone. So For Colored Girls was written off – does that really mean, therefore, all of the performances should be flushed down the toilet?
This reality plays out year after year. So far there seems to be no end in sight. But if Ms. Davis is nominated, which she most likely will be — history will have been ever-so-slightly altered.
Many of you readers will no doubt say that it’s too bad it has to be for The Help. Many of you will lament the notion that many Oscar-nominated black performances are only there because they fit right in line with Hollywood’s notions of black stereotypes. Black actors, unlike their white counterparts, have to carry the very heavy burden of their past, and our past, every time they act in a movie. Therefore, now Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer must also bear any burden of the Jim Crow South not directly confronted in this film. Really? It’s their job to right the wrongs of everyone? Hollywood, the author, the people who respond to the movie — somehow it falls on their shoulders. I find this horribly unfair.
I will be asked in the comments section if I believe in affirmative action when it comes to the Oscars and my answer is FUCK YES. The reason for this is that actors are nominated for a variety of reasons. Some of the time they’re there because they actually deserve to be there. But much of the time it’s like Homecoming. The prettiest and most popular girl gets to wear the tiara for a night and dance with the Homecoming King. We all know this is the way it works — so if that is how SOME people are nominated for an Oscar, well, I see no reason why someone can’t be nominated, all things being equal, because they’re black.
I find myself incredibly annoyed with anyone who sees the Oscar race as a noble practice. It is anything but. Sure, they vote for what they like and the vote counting is honest and no one is getting bribed – but it’s the old guard. And listen, the old guard is the enemy of progress. Look how long it took for Halle Berry to win an Oscar. Do yourself a favor. Look back through Oscar history at the white women who have won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress and ask yourself whether they really and truly deserved that award or they just won because the AMPAS either liked them or liked their character?
Now, back to the 1970s – there was a time when there were ferocious black women in movies — in fact, strong women used to dominate the cinema. But once the blockbuster concept took over and people started looking at who could open a movie and who couldn’t, and why no women could — and before you knew it, strong roles for women began to diminish. Strong roles for black women? Nowhere to be found.
Of course, it’s also unfair to single out black actors when most minorities also don’t get a fair shake. I guess the reason there is so much focus on black performers is because Hollywood, and Oscar specifically, do respond to films about black and white conflicts — it’s just that they do it on their own terms. They like it when it’s addressed and managed by white characters — like Mississippi Burning, like Driving Miss Daisy, like The Blind Side, like The Help.
The white performers get the Oscar nominations. The black performers, save one or two, usually end up as flourish. The thing that sets The Help apart from those other films is that the plot does also turn on the black characters Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It also features many strong female characters — it would be a shame to see it sink like a stone because it doesn’t go quite far enough.