Don’t Applaud Hollywood Yet For Denzelle,Halle, And Will

Film critics, industry flaks, and even some black entertainers have tumbled over themselves shouting the praises of Hollywood for picking three blacks for its top awards. They repeatedly toss around the words “history-making” to describe the feat. It isn’t. In 1973, Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in Sounder, and Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues were nominated for the leading awards. And during most of the 1990s blacks have often been nominated for best acting and supporting acting roles. Five have won Oscars for supporting roles.

If Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Halle Berry win the big prize for their roles in Training Day, Ali, and Monster’s Ball, Hollywood will hail them as the enduring poster pinups for racial diversity in the film industry. But that means skating past much of Hollywood’s shabby history in dealing with blacks.

It’s been nearly four decades since Hollywood crowned Sidney Poitier as best actor for his role as Homer Smith, the happy-go-lucky traveling laborer, who cheerfully helped nuns build a small church in Lilies of the Field in 1963. Academy voters have taken the heat for the industry’s racial blind spot. Moments after the Academy announced this year’s picks, Academy Award nominee, Angela Bassett, claimed that most of the nearly 6,000 Academy voters were aging, white males, and blasted them for their racism.

An industry spokesperson quickly shot back that this was guesswork, and that no one knows or cares what the racial identities of the Academy voters are, and that their vote for Smith, Washington, and Berry proved that the voters are race-neutral. But Hollywood isn’t. In the 74 years that the Academy has showered its top awards on its leading lights, exclusive of the Poitier best male actor award, blacks have fared dismally on and after Oscar night in Hollywood:

  • Barely two percent of the nearly 300 Oscar awardees have been black.
  • Hattie McDaniel, who won the best supporting actress award for her role as a maid in Gone With The Wind in 1939, was barred from the “whites only” premier of the film in Atlanta.
  • Only one black has been nominated for a best film director award.
  • No blacks have been nominated for a best film writer award.
  • Blacks are still grossly underrepresented in the Directors and Writers Guilds, and the 4,000-member union local that includes decorators and property managers.

Then there are the parts that garnered much critical praise for Washington, Smith, and Berry, and that got them their Academy nods. The roles of W ashington, as a foul-mouthed, rogue cop, Smith as the clowning Ali, and Berry as a sexually lustful widow skirt the thin line between knockout dramatic excellence and reinforcing the stereotypes of black males as buffoonish, menaces to society, and black women as high-strung, and hot-bodied. Washington and Berry recognized the problems with their roles, but in interviews in the New York Times and the trades, bristled at the notion that they were pandering to these stereotypes.

In candid moments, some film industry executives admit Hollywood’s disgraceful racial past but say that the industry is doing much to make amends for it. And, there have been some positive changes. More black male actors than ever have made a huge splash on the screen in non-racially stereotypical roles. They have strong box office appeal, and are generally accepted by much of the film going public. In 1999, the Directors Guild of America struck the name of filmmaker D.W. Griffith from its annual award to its top film director. Griffith was dumped for making the grotesque, racially slanderous film, Birth of a Nation in 1915 that played a colossal part in poisoning racial attitudes toward blacks for much of the 20th century.

These are welcome steps by the film industry. But they don’t negate Hollywood’s refusal to create more opportunities for blacks. It’s not a matter of begging Hollywood to open wider its racial doors. It’s a matter of dollars. In the four decades since Poitier copped the top award, the black movie going audience has soared. Blacks purchase an estimated one-fourth of all movie tickets in the United States and have helped shore-up the at times sagging box office take for the film industry.

It took the threats of advertiser boycotts, demonstrations, and stockholder challenges by black activists to get TV executives to at least make a paper promise to hire and promote more minorities on and off screen. But film executives refuse to make any such promise. They say time, talent, and perseverance will bring racial diversity to their industry. They, of course, said the same thing in 1963, 1973, and throughout the 1990s, when blacks were nominated, and even won, awards. But the promised total racial remake of Hollywood hasn’t happened. If Halle, Denzel, and Will’s name are called out as winners when the envelopes are opened on Oscar night, there’s little reason to think that remake will happen this time either.

 Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website:  He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press). .

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