Oscars' Insult to Black Movies: There's Room for Just One (Analysis)

THR Black Oscar Illustration - S 2014
Illustration by: Skip Sterling

THR Black Oscar Illustration - S 2014

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The past year saw a striking number of critically acclaimed films about the black experience: 12 Years a Slave; 42; Lee Daniels' The Butler; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and Fruitvale Station, to name just a few. There was lots of talk that two or three of those films and three or four black actors (12 Years' Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mandela's Idris Elba, Fruitvale's Michael B. Jordan, The Butler's Forest Whitaker) and actresses (Fruitvale's Octavia Spencer, Mandela's Naomie Harris, 12 Years' Lupita Nyong'o) might land Oscar nominations. To recognize the occasion, the Broadcast Film Critics Association held "A Celebration of Black Cinema" at the House of Blues in West Hollywood on Jan. 7.

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But when the 86th Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 16, only 12 Years a Slave, which collected nine nominations, including mentions for Ejiofor and Nyong'o, received any real acknowledgment. (Mandela's lone nom was for an original song composed by the all-white Irish band U2.)

Django Unchained's Reginald Hudlin, who last year became only the fourth black producer to be nominated for the best picture Oscar, reacted by saying, "While I am happy for the cast and crew of 12 Years to get recognition, I wish more [additional] worthy projects got similar attention." (Hudlin will produce the Feb. 22 NAACP Image Awards to make sure those other films get their due.)

Shawn Edwards, an African-American journalist for WDAF-TV in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the BFCA who suggested the group's Jan. 7 celebration, was less forgiving. "I was sick to my stomach," he says when asked how he felt upon seeing the nominations. "What do you have to do? Fruitvale Station is an outstanding movie. It won awards at Sundance and Cannes. If its writer-director Ryan Coogler was Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, he'd have won an Oscar for best original screenplay. How about Naomie Harris in Mandela? If she was Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar would already have her name on it. It was shocking and disappointing. If it couldn't happen in a year with as many options as 2013, I don't know when it can. That's the saddest part of this. The most offensive statement I've heard people make is, 'If 12 Years hadn't been released in 2013, The Butler and Fruitvale would have had a better chance.' Is there only room for one?"

So was race a factor in the Academy's voting? The group's 6,028 members are overwhelmingly middle-aged, older, white and male; a recent Los Angeles Times study concluded that, despite recent diversity initiatives, only 2 percent of the Academy's members are black.

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But history also suggests that the Academy actually has been somewhat progressive when it comes to matters of race. Seventy-four years ago, when blacks were still being lynched in the South, it chose Gone With the Wind's Hattie McDaniel over four white women for the best supporting actress Oscar -- even if she was seated in the back of the room, by the kitchen -- making her the first black Oscar winner. Fifty years ago, at the height of the U.S. civil rights debate, it chose Lilies of the Field's Sidney Poitier as the first black best actor winner. And 12 years ago, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the best actor and actress Oscars at the same ceremony.

But this year, the Academy mostly ignored films about the black experience featuring black talent, several of which have been celebrated by other groups that usually are strong Academy bellwethers. For example, The Butler was one of five best ensemble SAG Award nominees, and its lead actor, Whitaker, and supporting actress Oprah Winfrey received individual SAG noms.

There may be extenuating circumstances. The Butler, released in August, might have fared better if it had arrived in November, when it would have been greeted as a fresh contender. And Spencer, a supporting actress Oscar winner two years ago for The Help who has since become an Academy member and won the National Board of Review's best supporting actress prize this year for Fruitvale, feels a lack of promotion is to blame for her film's snub. "I don't think race played a role at all," she says. "I know the DGA didn't get screeners and the PGA got them very late, and I'm not sure that all SAG and Academy members received them. It's not their fault. They can't vote for a movie they didn't see."

But not everyone's willing to let the Academy off the hook. "I just think that sometimes it's tough for other cultures to look through a different lens and understand that perspective and culture," Edwards says. "It's not their world. They don't understand it fully. They're not totally comfortable with it. And it's not what they celebrate on a daily basis. It's not racism. But there's a thin line."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg