Whitest Oscars in 10 years?
Early signs point to no black nominees in acting categoriesWill white be the only color on the red carpet at the 83rd Academy Awards?
Although Oscar contenders are just lining up at the starting gate for the annual run for the gold, there's a real possibility that for the first time since the 73rd Oscars 10 years ago, there will be no black nominees in any of the acting categories at the February ceremony. In fact, there are virtually no minorities in any of the major categories among the early lists of awards hopefuls.
"It's more difficult than ever to get a picture made with any serious subject matter -- let alone an ethnic-themed one," John Singleton, an Academy member and two-time Oscar nominee for 1991's "Boyz N the Hood," said of the current filmmaking environment, which has in turn narrowed Oscar's choices.
At the 82nd Oscars in March, it was a dramatically different story, thanks to "Precious." The gritty drama earned six noms, Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique were nominated as best actress and best supporting actress, respectively, and Mo'Nique took home the prize. Geoffrey Fletcher became the first black winner of a screenplay Oscar. And Lee Daniels was just the second black director ever to earn a directing nom. In addition, Morgan Freeman, a past Oscar winner for "Million Dollar Baby," picked up his fifth nomination for playing Nelson Mandela in "Invictus." [REVIEWS: "Invictus" and "Precious"]
As Singleton points out, "Precious" defied the conventional wisdom that sees the industry steering away from serious black films. "It took home Oscars and, grossing $63 million worldwide, made a huge profit domestic and overseas. This from a picture that was obviously deemed not commercial on arrival."
This year, the early lineup, in a review of contenders by THR, is striking for its near-total absence of actors of color.
"The King's Speech" focuses on the very proper British royal family; "Black Swan" is set among pale-skinned New York ballerinas; "127 Hours" details the survival saga of one (white) dude; "The Social Network," "The Kids Are All Right," "Hereafter" and "The Town" all feature fairly homogeneously Caucasian casts and key creative talent. [REVIEWS: "The King's Speech" ... "Black Swan" ... "The Social Network" ... "The Kids Are All Right"... "The Town."]
Belgian actress Cecile de France, an early contender for "Hereafter," and Spaniard Javier Bardem, Cannes' best actor winner for "Biutiful," are in the mix, at least lending a couple of foreign accents. And it's still possible, of course, that a yet un-hyped movie could surface that will change the complexion of the race. [REVIEW: "Biutiful"]
But several awards consultants said they can't figure out exactly where it would come from.
Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," an adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," is one of the few remaining question marks, since Lionsgate has not yet begun screening the movie, which opens Nov. 5. The cast includes one past Oscar winner in Whoopi Goldberg along with Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad and Janet Jackson. [REVIEW: "For Colored Girls"]
But while it marks a serious turn for Perry, who's known for his commercial comedies, it's unclear whether any of the individual performances could emerge from the ensemble to claim a nomination. (Jackson's best shot at a nom may be in the song category, since she's also co-writer of the tune "Nothing," which is on the soundtrack of Perry's "Why Did I Get Married Too?")
"Perry is currently the only African-American with an ongoing concern at a studio, and he continues to, as black people say, 'Hold it down' with pictures that draw a core black audience as well as others," Singleton observed. "But, sadly, this is a sector that most of the rest of the industry has neglected as of late with middling comedies."
If the Oscar nominations, which will be revealed Jan. 25, do go to an all-white cast of actors, that's sure to put the Academy in an uncomfortable position since it's been making real efforts to ensure its own membership is more diverse.
"For the Academy to continue going forward, it has to be relevant and it has to be inclusive of everybody. We're a worldwide organization. The only thing we missed last year was an international production for best picture," Tom Sherak, Academy president, told THR on Tuesday. "My hope is that we get more ethnicity in the Academy."
To that end, when the Academy issued its annual invite to new members in June, it included recent nominees like Mo'Nique, Sidibe, Daniels and Fletcher as well as "Avatar" star Zoe Saldana and "Hustle & Flow" producer Stephanie Allain. Over the past few years, invitations have gone out to Perry and such black actors as Ruby Dee, Jennifer Hudson, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and Jeffrey Wright, as well as Latin performers like Adriana Barraza and Maribel Verdu. [REVIEW: "Avatar"]
But when it comes to bestowing Oscars, the Academy is at the mercy of whatever films are available.
"I haven't seen all the movies that are coming yet," noted Sherak. "But you can only work with what is given to you. There has to be something you are able to vote for."
"It feels kind of circumstantial," one member of Hollywood's black community said about this year's lack of black contenders. "Maybe you could get some studio people to address it, but then there are no black studio executives, which is another story."
The last time the Academy was forced to confront the issue was the 68th Academy Awards, which took place in 1996. Although Quincy Jones served as the show's producer that year and Goldberg was host, the Rev. Jesse Jackson used the awards to protest "the paucity of nominations of people of color [which] is directly related to the lack of films featuring the talents of people of color." While he didn't target the actual ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he called for a viewer boycott and protests at ABC affiliates.
Jackson pressed his case in meetings with Academy officials and studio execs as well as union leaders. But Oprah Winfrey, who was scheduled to interview celebrities on the broadcast, said at the time: "When I heard Jesse was asking people to boycott the Oscars, I got on the phone to Quincy and believe me, he was furious and so was I. Particularly because this isn't the year, if ever you were going to do it [since the broadcast promised to be] the most multi-ethnic Oscars show anybody's ever seen."
Over the past decade, the issue has subsided, although the number of minority nominees has often depended on just one or two releases that changed the face of the noms dramatically. For example, 2006's globe-trotting "Babel" secured supporting actress noms for Mexico's Barraza and Japan's Rinko Kikuchi. They became part of one of Oscar's most diverse group of acting nominees, joining Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Djimon Honsou ("Blood Diamond") and both Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy from "Dreamgirls."
This year, though, the movies are looking a lot more monochromatic. What happened?
Minority actors certainly are finding work: They are featured prominently in nearly half of 2010's top 20 domestic-grossers, whether it's Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson lending their muscle to "Iron Man 2," Eddie Murphy voicing Donkey in "Shrek Forever After," young Jaden Smith following in his dad Will's shoes in "Karate Kid" with the help of Jackie Chan or Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah popping up in "Valentine's Day." But those aren't the kind of movies that generally win the Academy's respect. [REVIEWS: "Iron Man 2" ... "Shrek Forever After" ... "Karate Kid" ... "Valentine's Day"]
"It may be an effect of the [2007-2008] writers' strike," theorized one awards strategist. "The studios were all playing it cautious."
Some Academy favorites also just didn't throw their hat into the ring this year. Two-time nominee Smith sat out the year without a new release. Two-time winner Denzel Washington opted for the apocalyptic "The Book of Eli," which ran into decidedly mixed reviews, and the upcoming action movie "Unstoppable." Spike Lee concentrated on his second documentary about New Orleans, "If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise," which bowed on HBO last month. [REVIEW: "The Book of Eli"]
It was another story on the indie side.
"Diverse films are being made, but they are not necessarily being picked up for distribution," said Rebecca Yee, SAG national director and senior EEO counsel for affirmative action and diversity. Under SAG's low budget agreements, producers are allowed to increase overall budgets if they demonstrate they are achieving diversity goals. "A lot of producers come to us to use those incentives," Yee explained, but if their completed films don't attract the interest of distributors, "it's hard for them to get their movies seen."
"African-American-themed projects are now being relegated to specialty pictures -- as they were in the '80s before Spike Lee," Singleton said.
Hollywood might not be taking full advantage of the potential audience: According to the MPAA, Hispanics comprise 15% of the U.S. population, but they buy 21% of the movie tickets; blacks, 12% of the population, buy another 11%.
SAG, which issues a report on minority casting every two years, is still collecting data on '09 and '10, which won't be released until next fall. In 2007, non-Caucasian performers in both film and TV hit a peak of 29.3%, falling marginally to 27.5% in 2008. "At this point, it's hard to tell where we are, but my feeling is that it's pretty much the same," Yee said.
Those percentages are not likely to be reflected at this year's Oscars. Right now, barring a surprise entry in the race, the major categories are in danger of looking like a whites-only club.