Are the Oscars finally colorblind?

This morning, Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lee Daniels (the stars and director of Precious, respectively) and the legendary Morgan Freeman (who embodied Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus) were all recognized for their acclaimed work in film with Academy Award nominations. By most accounts this was a better than average showing for African-Americans in the film industry. These significant achievements follow a decade of considerable success for African-Americans on the awards circuit and beg the question: are the Oscars finally colorblind?

Ever since their inception, the Academy Awards have had a rocky history when it comes to recognizing African-American performers. As Hollywood’s highest honor, most actors and actresses covet “the Oscar” regardless of race. But for blacks it can also be a major acknowledgment of acceptance and status in a still mostly white-dominated industry.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel, after enduring the indignity of being barred from her own film’s premiere, was the first black performer recognized by the academy, winning the best supporting actress award for the stereotypical role of ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. The next time a black actor was nominated was in1948 and the next time one actually won a prize was in 1963, when Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win best actor for Lilies in the Field.

In the decades that followed African-Americans were rarely nominated and hardly ever won. The exclusion of blacks became so consistent that black Hollywood heavyweights began holding a secret “black Oscars” on the eve of the actual ceremony in the early 1970s. Over the years, performers like Will Smith, James Earl Jones, Whitney Houston and Samuel L. Jackson would get together with their peers in the industry and honor their own.

By 1996, the paucity of African-American talent honored at the Academy Awards was so egregious that it inspired a highly publicized protest featuring the Reverend Jesse Jackson. That year out of 166 nominees only one was a person of color. In an open letter addressed to the entertainment industry, Jackson lamented: “Behind the glamour and glitz, behind the fantasy of inclusion and opportunity so carefully nurtured by the film industry, there is the reality that there is only one African American nominee this year and zero Latino, Asian Pacific, or Native Americans. What does this fact say about the marginal role people of color play in films?”

To many, 2002 was a turning point. That year Denzel Washington became the first black man to win best actor since Poitier in 1963. That same night Halle Berry made history by becoming the first, and so far only, black woman to win best actress. The rest of the decade brought victories for Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Hudson—with many more African-Americans recognized with nominations. In total, 11 African-Americans have won Oscars—six of them within the last decade. Perhaps as a sign of the times the plug was pulled on the “black Oscars” in 2007, as they were deemed no longer necessary.

Vic Bulluck, the Executive Director of the NAACP’s Hollywood Bureau says that while “phenomenal actors over the years have been overlooked” the Academy Awards have grown more “inclusive” in recent years. Still, his organization’s Image Awards have done a far better job of recognizing black talent consistently and early. “We recognized Denzel was a star when he was the third lead on St. Elsewhere,” said Bulluck.

African-Americans undeniably broke ground this Oscar season. Sidibe is the first black woman to be nominated for best actress since Halle Berry won and Daniels is only the second African-American to be nominated for best director in the academy’s history (the only other black best director nominee was John Singleton in 1991 for Boyz N the Hood). But why should these awards shows mean anything to these performers or the African-American community?

”[The Academy Awards] are seen internationally and there is a recognized bump in terms of financial gain for projects that win or are nominated,” said Bulluck. “In the business sense getting recognition is important and in the cultural sense getting recognized is historic.” In other words, if more films made by and starring African-Americans are both critical and commercially viable, more opportunities will be there for people of color in the future.

Still, even with the pride and prestige that comes along with winning a high-profile award it is still challenging for African-Americans to get the kind of roles that consistently receive critical kudos. Bulluck believes the black community needs to continue to support black nominees with their dollars so they can continue inspire us with their work.

According to Bulluck, the final vote on this issue is at the box office. “Gabourey Sidibe is a phenomenal actress, if you look at her performance and when you look at who she really is—it’s incredible. When she is in her next project—black audiences need to show up.”


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