Let’s face it: for the past decade, the Oscars have spoiled black people. Since the historic 2002 Oscar ceremony where Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home best actor and actress honors, we have become accustomed to the Academy being more inclusive and recognizing the talents of black actors and actresses in Hollywood.
Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, and Forest Whitaker have all won Oscars post-2002, while Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Viola Davis, Gabourey Sidibe, Queen Latifah, and Ruby Dee have all enjoyed the thrill of being nominated. In addition, Three 6 Mafia made history by becoming the first hip-hop group to win an Academy Award, and just last year Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African-American to win for best adapted screenplay. All signs pointed to a shift in the way the Academy deals with black talent.
However, the 83rd annual Academy Award ceremony brought all of those high-minded ideas crashing back down to earth, as it has been noted by many critics and observers that this year’s nominees did not include a single person of color (unless one applies the so-called ‘one-drop rule’ to teenage actress Hailee Steinfeld, whose mother is of white, Filipino, and black ancestry). As a matter of fact, outside of a tribute to the late great Lena Horne, black people were not a prominent part of last night’s show. We can complain, and likely will, but the complaining does nothing to change the facts on the ground. So, what can be done to get more black people at the Oscars?
WATCH THIS PROFILE OF THE SCHOOL KIDS WHO SANG AT THE OSCARS:
1) Make more black films. It’s a sheer numbers game: the more black films that get made, the more chances we have the Academy to take notice of talented black filmmakers. Now, it’s easy to say ‘make more films’ without understanding the arduous process of getting a film made, much less a film where the principal talent involved is of African descent. But we have more black Hollywood power players working today than ever before, many of them with the money and the clout to produce whatever projects they choose (think Will Smith, Tyler Perry, Ice Cube, Oprah), not to mention independent filmmakers who are grinding it out in much the same way Spike Lee did in his early days. It’s a less of matter of whether or not we have the resources but more about convincing those who do to allocate those resources.
2) Make better films. Making more films is not sufficient. There were many films released in 2010 with black people in starring roles, but unfortunately very few of them were any good. It’s understandable that we are happy with the idea of seeing ourselves represented on the big screen, but if the goal is to make the prestigious award committees dole out awards for our efforts, our filmmakers must take the process seriously, learn and perfect their craft, and produce quality work. Simply put, we can’t expect Oscar nominations for the Chris Rock vehicle Death at a Funeral, as mildly amusing as it may have been.
3) Support black films. Financially, of course, but it requires more than that even. Oscar nominations are not won simply because a film does well at the box office. It requires critical acclaim and a large media push. Writers, bloggers, TV/radio personalities, and anyone else with a platform has to spread the word and make a huge deal about how a film is “Oscar worthy” until a sizable chorus of supporters is built. A film like Night Catches Us, which was probably the best reviewed film last year that featured a principally black cast as well as black writer/director, only gets noticed if the press surrounding it attaches tags like “Oscar buzz” ad nauseum.
4) Create/demand better roles for black actors/actresses. It has proven a long struggle, and we are still seeing black actors and actresses pigeonholed into roles that are stereotypical and/or less demanding. What’s worse, at times it’s black filmmakers who are creating these roles. There has to come a time where accepting mediocrity is no longer an option.
5) Support our young talent. We can not continue to expect the same ten black actors and actresses and the same two or three directors to represent the entire black community at every award show. It’s imperative we take the time to support and mentor the emerging talent and increase their profiles in order that Hollywood is forced to pay attention.
6) Get more Oscar nominations. It seems ridiculous to mention, as this is the entire problem, but it’s essential. Once a person is nominated for an Oscar, they are typically invited to join the Academy, and therefore have a vote when it comes nomination time. The more black faces that are part the Academy, the greater the chances (in theory) that black films will gain traction when the Oscars are being considered.
7) Petition for more black hosts. Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg can’t be the only black people capable of hosting the ceremony. Kevin Hart appears to be the hottest young black comedian of the moment, so reaching out to him would make sense, or comedienne Aisha Tyler who would likely do an amazing job. But it won’t happen unless the viewers show they want a change and organize and petition ABC and the show’s producers to let them know they would like to see more black people afforded the opportunity to host.
8) Get behind the scenes. There are more categories than just acting and directing. Art direction, costume design, sound mixing/editing, makeup, visual effects, film editing, and cinematography are all fields that receive Oscar nominations and nary a black face pops up when they are announced. They aren’t the ‘sexiest’ or most glamorous awards, but they do hold opportunity.
9) Play the game. You have to abide by the unwritten rules of Hollywood to get their awards. Eddie Murphy seemed poised to take the best supporting actor statue for his role and Dreamgirls, but by all accounts the release of his broad, ill-received comedy Norbit shortly prior to the awards ceremony cost him the win. It’s a part of the politics of Hollywood, and if Oscars are what we desire, we have to learn the game and then play it, better than everyone else.
10) Stop worrying about the Oscars. As nice as it is to be recognized for your work, the approval of the Academy can not be the ultimate motivation. We should focus more on making the best films possible to tell our stories and showcase the talent in our community. If we do that, the Oscars will come, but by that point we won’t even care.