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  Oscars coverage

  Black Actors Up Against the Odds in Hollywood

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 1999

PASADENA, Calif. – In the past four years there have been two Oscar nominations for black actors, screenwriters or feature film directors.

This year: zero. Last year: zero.

There has been nothing at all since Cuba Gooding Jr. triumphantly took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing a football star with an attitude in "Jerry Maguire" in 1996.

While that in itself may be curious, just as curious is the attitude among members of the African American film community when presented with this fact: no, not outrage, more like resignation.

"We're only like 10 percent of the population. We can't be in the forefront of everyone's mind, as if there's some kind of conspiracy," Morgan Freeman said testily, standing on the red carpet Sunday on his way into the Image Awards, presented to black artists by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He added, before moving on, "I think whatever rises, rises."

"My disappointment came before that," said the actor known as Leon, who co-starred in this season's HBO film "The Temptations." "There are not enough significant roles and films to be considered for nominations."

True enough, said veteran actress Cicely Tyson, after collecting her Image Award for a role in "Mama Flora's Family," a television movie. "There aren't any choices," she said. "As black women we have to wait for roles for women. Then we have to wait for roles for black women. And I have the audacity to be selective. In my time, I have been optimistic that we would be hired simply because of our ability. But we have to understand the fact that we're . . . constantly proving ourselves over and over. I live for the day when that will become obsolete."

Tyson, who is 65, may need to live for quite a long time. While the first part of the 1990s saw a steady stream of performances and films by African American talent – some of which was recognized by the Academy Awards – the second half of the decade has seen a marked decrease in candidates vying for cinema's highest honor. In 1996 People magazine noted the start of this trend and, in a cover story, called the exclusion of African Americans from the film industry and the awards "a national disgrace."

Among those nominated in the early '90s were Denzel Washington for 1992's "Malcolm X," Samuel Jackson for 1994's "Pulp Fiction," John Singleton for writing and directing the 1991 film "Boyz N the Hood" and Angela Bassett for 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

Besides Gooding's, the only other Oscar nomination since 1995 for a black person in the top categories for a feature film was for British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, for Best Supporting Actress in "Secrets & Lies" in 1996. (Director Spike Lee was nominated for the 1997 documentary "4 Little Girls"; his 1998 feature "He Got Game," received tepidly by the critics, was ignored.)

"If there were African American performances from African American films in large, visible numbers that demanded attention and were being ignored, then we'd have an argument. That, unfortunately, is not the case," says Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Film and Television Studies. "The case is that there's really not a lot to choose from, and those few things to choose from are not being chosen."

"It's certainly depressing news," says Hamilton Cloud, who has produced the NAACP's Image Awards for 12 years, created to draw attention to African American achievements overlooked elsewhere. "We watch the nominations like everyone else does, and it's amazing that not one, not even a supporting actress" was nominated.

Some expressed disappointment that Oprah Winfrey's ambitious film about slavery, "Beloved," received no nominations despite critical praise for many of its performances. But "Beloved" failed dismally at the box office, and was regarded by many as too depressing. Apart from that, even Cloud was hard pressed to name other efforts by black performers this year that stood out.

"It's cyclical," he conceded. "In the '70s after the 'blaxploitation' films, the same thing happened. They went out of vogue, there was a lack of good roles for many years. We seem to have gone through the same thing in the early '90s. Now it's drying up again."

In part, the wave of young, cutting-edge black directors who made gritty, low-budget movies in the early part of the decade – besides Singleton there was Allen and Albert Hughes, Robert Townsend, Mario Van Peebles and Warrington and Reginald Hudlin – has given way to more commercial African American-oriented films. Among these have been "Waiting to Exhale," "Soul Food" and 1998's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." In 1997, Singleton made "Rosewood," a studio-financed film about a Southern black town's martyrdom, which received mixed reviews, while the Hughes brothers have been working on a documentary about pimps.

Meanwhile the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which bestows the Oscars, seems to have grown enamored of small, British-flavored productions, whether it's Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995, "The English Patient," which swept the awards in 1996, or this year's nominations for "Elizabeth," about the 16th-century queen, "Hilary and Jackie," about British cello virtuoso Jacqueline du Pre, or "Shakespeare in Love."

Some believe that the Academy has too few minority members to seek out the African American efforts that do exist. The Academy's membership list is not officially published, but its 5,300 constituents are known to be the filmmaking establishment, which is overwhelmingly nonminority. But others agree with Morgan Freeman, who says that the Oscars should have nothing to do with racial agendas.

"It's all about merit," said Freeman, who was nominated for 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy," a year when Denzel Washington won the Best Supporting Actor statue for "Glory."

"I don't worry about that," said Ossie Davis, another veteran actor at the Image Awards. "I've been doing this a long time, and I'm happy to see what we've created. We have learned to respect our own images, and we've helped the industry appreciate who we are."

In the end, many return to the notion that there will be no significant change until there are enough African Americans in the studios to green-light movies. It's part of the reason why Black Entertainment Television owner Robert Johnson has begun producing made-for-TV movies and is looking to produce feature films this year.

"I think the general view is that there's probably not an artistic bias in the Academy, but if you don't send as many African American actors, writers, directors up to bat, the odds of them being selected for the Oscars is obviously less," he said. "The only way to change that is for the system to open up the doors to more African American writers. As a result of that you'll get more African American scripts, which would require African American actors. But many of those decisions are business decisions. And those who decide to green-light a film don't believe they can match a great white actor with a great black actress. That's the kind of courage people have to put out."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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