At an Oscar-viewing party Monday night, Bob Johnson, president of Black Entertainment Television, asked the guests assembled in his Georgetown headquarters to write down their choices of movies to win an Oscar. "I think all the black people put 'The Color Purple' at the top of their lists," he said.
Indeed, "The Color Purple" was at the top of many people's lists. Nominated for 11 Oscars, it was thought to be a shoo-in for several. But by the end of the Academy Awards presentations, the excitement over this controversial movie had plummeted into despair. "The Color Purple" did not receive a single Oscar.
Film critics and aficionados have offered a number of reasons that the movie was, in the term of several groups, a "blackout" at the 58th annual Academy Awards ceremony.
Some cite the strong sentiment against the film's young director, Steven Spielberg, the innovative maverick. Although Spielberg's films have grossed more money than those of any other director in cinema history, and although he has been nominated for an Oscar three times, he has never won -- and was not even nominated as best director for "The Color Purple." In a recent article in New York magazine, Spielberg was referred to as the "man who ruined Hollywood," because of the kinds of films he has produced and directed.
Moreover, Hollywood's politics, competitiveness and old-boy network probably also played a part in "Purple's" fate. Inasmuch as actors make up the greatest portion of the Academy's 4,244 members, the voters are conscious not only of a nominee's immediate role but also of career contributions. Many of the blacks who were competing were relative newcomers -- for "Purple" star Whoopi Goldberg, it was her first film.
But because other strong black films that were Oscar contenders have been shut out in the past, Hollywood's historical racism is also a factor here. In the Academy's history, only three black actors have won Oscars, and all for work with predominantly white casts. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Oscar, for her performance as the cantankerous Mammy in "Gone with the Wind." Sidney Poitier won for his role in "Lilies of the Field," and Lou Gossett won best supporting actor for "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Just last year, many people complained that the late Adolph Caesar had deserved an Academy Award for his gripping performance in the movie "A Soldier's Story." Indeed, the Academy's only consistent acknowledgement of black talent has been in the field of film music, for which Prince, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie have all won Oscars.
Ironically enough, the Academy could feel some justification for shutting out "Purple" because of the controversy generated by many blacks who were angry and disturbed about its depiction of black men. The most hotly debated cultural issue among blacks in the last few months, the film was picketed by some black men and women, boycotted by others, and talked about on television shows, in forums and in countless private discussions. Vehemently criticized by many blacks as portraying black men as rapists, committers of incest and wife-beaters, the film took on even greater significance because it was based on a book by a black woman, Alice Walker.
So while many blacks were disappointed in the film's shutout, that feeling was definitely not universal.
Nonetheless, "Purple" was nominated for 11 awards. And in its total shutout, a wave of protest has surfaced across the country. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood-Beverly Hills branch of the NAACP sent a formal letter of protest to the Academy. Branch President Willis Edwards denounced the movie's failure to win a single award as "a slap in the faces" of producer-composer Quincy Jones and Spielberg.
"I think there is a very strong social implication," Jones said after the ceremony. "That's the way it is, and we'll have to do something about it."
One response has been a promotion organized by a local radio station, WDJY. Program manager Brute Bailey is urging Washingtonians to wear a purple ribbon tomorrow to protest the Academy's action, and said the station will supply ribbons for any who don't have them.
Despite the continuing controversy surrounding the movie, I continue to be drawn to the film because it is the first time in the long, sad history of blacks in American cinema that black women transcended Hollywood's stereotypes of them as all-understanding matriarchs and had a real story told and authentic emotions revealed.
And while the controversy will doubtless continue, the proof of the pudding is going to be in future Academy Awards ceremonies, when either a Spielberg film or another movie with an all-black cast is considered. Then, if such films are ignored, rather than rewarded for merited excellence, the reason won't be so complex as the one surrounding "Purple."