Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why Black People Are "Invisible" to Oscar Voters (Guest Column)

Kareem - H 2016
Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images

The former NBA star invokes Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' in his take on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy: "Institutionalized racism is so insidious because those practicing it don't realize it."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Oops, Hollywood did it again.

For the second year in a row the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has neglected to recognize a single black actor out of 20 acting nominations. The backlash was instantaneous. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they would not attend the Oscar ceremony. Don Cheadle tweeted that the Academy would have him parking cars at the Oscars. David Oyelowo, who was overlooked last year for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, said simply, “The Academy has a problem.” Even Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American, admitted that she was “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.” 

Defenders are trying to explain the winter whiteout, but it’s like trying to explain how The Martian received a Golden Globe as a comedy. Can’t be done convincingly.

And money is the main purpose of the Oscars. Parade superstars in designer finery and megawatt jewelry, add as much cowbell as possible, and publicize movies to the 37 million viewers in the U.S. and several hundred million worldwide so they can make more money on tickets, DVDs, streaming services and foreign sales. The movies get the publicity, and the viewers get the glamour. Everybody wins.

Well, not everybody. Because there's much more going on. First, an Oscar nomination can shift an actor's career into turbocharge, bringing them better roles and more money. Having more black actors nominated can translate into more prominent black roles in movies, which means a broader variety of black characters and voices heard around the world.

Second, an Oscar nomination elevates the role itself into our cultural collective memory. The movie will be watched more often, the character referred to more often. Both become important constellations in pop-culture heaven that will be gazed upon for generations to come. As such, they will carry the weight of a rich archeological find, revealing one more clue about what the people and time held precious. Julianne Moore's 2015 Oscar for Still Alice as the brilliant professor dealing with Alzheimer's reflects the current concern of our aging baby boomer majority. Matthew McConaughey's win for Dallas Buyers Club reveals our awareness of variations of gender identity as well as a grassroots disgust with government inefficiency, as expressed by certain GOP presidential candidates.

The heart of the controversy isn't the fact that no black actors have been nominated in two years; it's grappling with the reasons. Yes, it's possible that no black actor in two years has delivered an Oscar-worthy performance, but so many people have witnessed otherwise that it feels more like watching a fixed fight: The champion gets pummeled every round yet still wins by unanimous decision. Huh?

For African-American artists and moviegoers, the situation is reminiscent of what Ralph Ellison wrote about being black in America in Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” The Academy members watched Creed, written by two black men (Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington), directed by a black man (Coogler), starring a black man (Michael B. Jordan) and mostly black cast, yet the only person they saw was Sylvester Stallone. Everyone else was invisible.

The nominations express to African-Americans that their life stories and their art are mostly invisible, not out of deliberate racism, but out of the systemic, institutionalized racism that is so insidious because those practicing it don’t realize it. In fact, as individuals, Academy members are decidedly not racists and many have probably worked diligently in their art and perhaps even privately to fight racism. But there’s no getting around the fact that the members of the Academy are not reflective of society in general and therefore less likely to acknowledge the cultural spectrum. A Los Angeles Times study of the 5,765 Academy members concluded that 94 percent are Caucasian (77 percent male), 2 percent are black, and less than 2 percent are Latino. The average age is 62, with only 14 percent younger than 50.

Looking at this pasty gray demographic, one can’t help but wonder whether or not they saw the lovely little coming-of-age film Dope, or were at all interested in the powerful N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, or cared about Spike Lee’s insightful Chi-Raq, or marveled at Samuel L. Jackson’s mesmerizing performance in The Hateful Eight. Why Will Smith (Concussion) was ignored is still a head-scratcher. Maybe they thought his previous two nominations were enough.

The problem is that Academy members seem to notice black performers mostly when they play socially familiar roles: athletes, performers, slaves, victims of racism, criminals. Eight of the last 10 male black actors nominated for best performance played real people, all of whom fall into one of the above categories. Opportunities for breakout roles are even worse for black women, who have received only nine best actress nominations, versus 18 for men.

So the Academy neglected to invite us to the Big House again. Boycotts and articles will raise awareness by prompting public discourse, but changing the Academy is like trying to steer a glacier. People of color, women and the LGBT community are better off looking to television to tell our stories because it is more responsive to cultural awareness. TV is packed with shows that are far superior to most movies and often viewed by a much larger audience.

Yes, there are still a lot of stereotypical black roles — sidekick cop (Mysteries of Laura, Elementary), by-the-book boss (Blindspot, Quantico, The Blacklist) — but during the course of a season, these characters are often developed more fully. Also, there are a variety of roles that step outside the usual well-trod path: Scandal, Empire, How to Get Away With Murder. On TV, black actors rarely play the lead, but they have been appearing more and more in juicy roles that expand the universe of how the world sees them. My favorite is Bokeem Woodbine, who plays mob enforcer Mike Milligan in this year's best show, Fargo. His performance is so nuanced, subtle and riveting that when he appears on the screen, the viewer might breathe a little softer as not to miss a word or gesture. Everyone in this series in spectacular, but Bokeem's performance as the philosophical hitman who straddles a narrow line between fatalistic and hopeful reveals a man aware of his racial burden but determined to rise above it. The odd cadence of his speech, the long pauses, the fixed smile combine to make him the most compelling character on television.

Perhaps in a few years, the Emmys will be the new Oscars and we will care less what the Academy does or doesn't do. But in the meantime, we must at least raise the questions that need to be asked — whether or not we like the answers. Even though, as Ellison says in Invisible Man, "I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied."