The Oscars' Black History Lessons


This year it means something that the only black performer nominated for an Academy Award was Djimon Hounsou. This West African-born actor has steadily presented an impressive, magnificent, sensitive and intelligent screen image, although in only a few mainstream films. "Gladiator" was a blockbuster, "Amistad" made almost $100 million and "In America," the film for which Hounsou is nominated, has only been a modest hit.

But this has not translated into stardom for Hounsou. The only black American filmmaker to use him has been Reggie Bythewood, director of "Biker Boyz." The Oscars bestow recognition on Hounsou that, so far, has not been forthcoming from African American filmmakers themselves. Now, as always, the Oscars say, take notice.

Looking at Oscar history provides a roadmap of black artists' awkward progress through the obstacles and advances of American movie culture. The Oscars are a sign of approval from the Hollywood film industry but in political and cultural terms, they are a measure of acceptance. Halle Berry's tearful hysteria in 2002 was a response to the weight of history placed on her shoulders as the first African American actress to be singled out for both approval and acceptance. It was a politically loaded version of Sally Field's famous gushing in 1985, "You like me! You really, like me!"

Field got it right. In an industry of constant competition, where there's no such thing as justice -- only box-office and lawsuits -- a display of large-scale acknowledgment is never certain. But Berry's controversial reaction was genuine, too. For black filmmakers, official certification -- that is, popularity -- can be an overwhelming surprise. Oscar history shows: It doesn't come often.

Since the Academy Awards were initiated in 1927 only 33 black performers have been nominated (in such behind-the-camera professions as directing, costume-design or screenwriting, only 15 African Americans have been nominated, most of those in the music categories). This does not indicate that black filmmakers were not present or worthy during the Oscars 76 years; merely that when Hollywood gives praise, it's more likely to look the other way.

In majority-white domains, white folks typically celebrate themselves. This is true, even while the Oscars presume to recognize the plurality in domestic and international film culture. As a result of the Oscars' long-standing, democratic, election-based tradition, fans and professionals alike pay attention. They have to. Whether they agree or not, the Academy's choices are meaningful -- though not always credible. The Academy's roster of nominated black performers provides an instructive guide to Hollywood race consciousness. Looking at Oscar history provides a roadmap of black artists' awkward progress through the obstacles and advances of American movie culture.

Hounsou's singular status this year reflects on the first black actor to be honored by the Academy. It wasn't Sidney Poitier or Denzel Washington but James Baskett who, in 1947, was awarded a special Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus in the Walt Disney film, "Song of the South." Despite the movie's still-contentious reputation, the Academy saw fit to honor Baskett's dignified embodiment of the black oral tradition. Seen today (in one of the "Song of the South" underground bootleg tapes, or on an imported Japanese DVD as Disney has withheld the movie in the U.S. ever since its last theatrical re-release in 1986), Baskett presents a loving yet grave paternal figure. His Uncle Remus contrasts Juano Hernandez's magisterial portrayal of William Faulkner's Lucas Beauchamp in the 1947 "Intruder in the Dust." That Clarence Brown film demonstrated the era's most humane and progressive instincts (Hernandez won several international film festival awards) yet it seems to have been too much to receive Hollywood's official Oscar stamp.

This Baskett/Hernandez paradox is an important reminder of how to read Oscar's black history. Some admirable efforts like Baskett's get the Academy's commendation, while others like Hernandez's must simply stand the test of time. That's one way to understand the first black Oscar recipient Hattie McDaniel winning for "Gone With the Wind" while historic black performances in earlier films such as Nina Mae McKinney in the 1929 "Hallelujah!" and Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in the 1934 "Imitation of Life" went unrewarded. (Beavers and Washington are due to receive their acclaim with the recent DVD release of "Imitation of Life.")

During the 1940s, after World War II, Hollywood entered its most politically conscious period, and that consciousness was reflected in such social problem pictures as "Gentleman's Agreement," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Home of the Brave," "Crossfire" and "Pinky" for which Ethel Waters became the second black Oscar nominee. This was the era when NAACP chairman Walter White met with various studio heads, demanding better, non-stereotypical black screen representation. Gradually, each time a black performer received an Oscar nomination signaled Hollywood's ethical progress. Dorothy Dandridge for "Carmen Jones" in 1954, Sidney Poitier for "The Defiant Ones" in 1958, Juanita Moore in the 1959 version of "Imitation of Life" were important signs of the film industry and American society changing and progressing in tandem.

Progress picked up, as America opened up, in the '60s and '70s. Poitier finally won Best Actor ("Lilies of the Field," 1963) and was the star of the 1967 Best Picture winner "In the Heat of the Night." Black performers were recognized more frequently, especially when the blaxploitation era ushered in more screen prominence.

Rupert Crosse in "The Reivers" (1969) and James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope" (1970) started the momentum. In 1972, a breakout year, Diana Ross ("Lady Sings the Blues"), "Sounder"'s Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were all nominated in the lead acting categories and Diahann Carroll ("Claudine") followed in 1974.

Since then, the number of black performers included in the Academy Awards contest has represented a more consistent black screen presence. In the '80s ten actors were nominated (with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington being mentioned twice each). Ten more were nominated in the '90s (Denzel received two additional nominations and black British actors Jaye Davidson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste figuring in the tally). The '90s also brought the first black director nominee, John Singleton for "Boyz N the Hood," making him the youngest director nominee on record.

Halfway through this decade there have been five black acting nominees so far. That's a pathetically small number considering the impressive performances that have been overlooked, such as Forest Whitaker in "Panic Room," Anna Devere Smith in "The Human Stain" or Lazaro Ramos in "Madame Sata." The Academy's omissions keep its rosters from truly reflecting the cultural contributions of black filmmakers. Great performances like Eddie Murphy's in "The Nutty Professor" and "The Klumps," Vivica A. Fox in "Two Can Play That Game," Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes in "Undisputed," Cam'ron in "Paid in Full," Thandi Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards and Oprah Winfrey in "Beloved," Charles Dutton in "Cookie's Fortune," Forest Whitaker in "Ghost Dog," Gloria Foster in "The Matrix" set industry standards that have not yet been properly acknowledged.

After Djimon Hounsou, this year's most black-centric Oscar nominee is the Brazilian film "City of God," which had four nominations (Best Director, Editing, Screenplay and Cinematography). It's the kind of urban cinematic poetry Scorsese would be doing if he kept up with the culture instead of retreating into white-ethnic insularity, the kind of serious exploitation film the Hughes brothers can only dream of making. "City of God" was the best nominee in each of its categories -- and won none. Still, its recognition was notable because "City of God," like "In America," is also the kind of serious, epic vision that so far eludes most African American filmmakers and is overlooked by many black filmgoers. They can look to both "City of God" and "In America" as models to follow -- not just to win awards but to appreciate as movies of ambition and quality.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.

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