Only one black actor received a nomination this year: Cynthia Erivo for best actress for “Harriet” (she also received a nod for best song).
“It’s not enough that I’m the only one. It just isn’t,” she told the New York Times this week, noting “far too much work was done this year by incredible women and men of color that should be celebrated.”
Her words echoed Eddie Murphy’s from the 1988 Oscars ceremony. Before presenting the winner for best picture, Murphy told the audience that he initially declined the invitation from the academy, and reenacted the conversation he had with his manager about it: “‘I’m not going [to the Oscars] because they haven’t recognized black people in motion pictures.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? Black people win Oscars!’ I said, 'Well, black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout 60 years — it was like Hattie McDaniel won the first one, then Sidney Poitier won one and Louis Gossett [Jr.],” Murphy said. (McDaniel won in 1940, Poitier in 1964 and Gossett in 1983.)
Murphy continued: “I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this but, hey, what the hey, I gotta say it. Actually, I might not be in any trouble because the way it’s been going, every 20 years we get one, so we ain’t due [till] about 2004 — so by then, this will have all blown over.”
His manager insisted he couldn’t “snub the academy,” so Murphy agreed to present the award, but added: “I just want you to know that I’m gonna give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society, and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you to recognize us.” (Murphy would go on to receive a supporting actor Oscar nomination 19 years later for “Dreamgirls,” but, as predicted, he has yet to win an Oscar).
Halle Berry won best actress in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball,” the first black woman to win in that category. While weeping onstage, she acknowledged her peers as well as the black women who had been nominated before her: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Fifteen years later, Berry said “that moment really meant nothing. It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.” No black woman has won best actress since.
Critics have often pointed out that when black actors do get nominated, it’s usually for stereotypical roles such as servants, slaves or criminals. (As rapper Jadakiss put it, “Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?,” referring to the actor’s Oscar win for playing a corrupt cop in “Training Day.”)
When Kim Basinger introduced a best picture nominee in 1990, she first highlighted a glaring omission: Spike Lee’s scorching drama about racism and police brutality. “We’ve got five great films here, and they’re great, for one reason: because they tell the truth. But there is one film that’s missing from this list, that deserves to be on it because ironically it might tell the biggest truth of all, and that’s ‘Do the Right Thing.’ ”
“Driving Miss Daisy” won best picture that year. In it, Morgan Freeman played a black chauffeur to a wealthy, white, elderly woman; he’d later call the role “a mistake,” leading him to be typecast in “wise, old, dignified, black man” roles. (Lee wouldn’t be nominated for best picture until 2019, when his “BlacKkKlansman” lost to “Green Book,” a divisive film about a poor, uneducated white man who chauffeurs a rich, acclaimed, black musician through the segregated South. “Every time someone is driving somebody, I lose,” Lee said in the press room of the awards show.)
The conversation really kicked into high gear starting in 2015 when April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite tweet went viral. Mainstream media increasingly covered the glaring lack of diversity among nominees, drawing particular attention to the racial and ethnic makeup of the academy’s voting body.
In 2016, only one nominee in the major acting and directing categories was not white. In the wake of the controversy, the academy announced major changes to its membership. Since then, the share of voting members who are people of color has doubled — to 16 percent.
Chris Rock tackled the #OscarsSoWhite controversy head-on when he hosted the 2016 ceremony. He also told a joke based on stereotypes of Asian kids being good at math; the academy later apologized for anything “offensive” on the telecast.
But later during the broadcast, comedian Kevin Hart took to the stage to introduce a musical performance and said, “I want to take a moment to applaud all of my actors and actresses of color that didn’t get nominated tonight."
“Tonight should not determine the hard work and effort you put into your craft. At the end of the day, we love what we do and we’re breaking major ground doing it,” he said. “These problems of today eventually will become problems of the old. Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us. Let’s continue to do what we do best, and work hard.”
Four years later, and those remarks are still relevant. Awkwafina won the Golden Globe for lead actress in a comedy for “The Farewell,” but the Lulu Wang film about a family returning to China to say goodbye to their beloved matriarch was shut out by the Oscars. “Parasite,” the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, received six Oscar nominations but not a single acting nod (a troubling trend regarding movies with predominantly Asian casts). Lupita Nyong’o, who won a supporting actress Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” in 2014, was overlooked for her work in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” as was Jennifer Lopez for her much-acclaimed turn in “Hustlers.”
That’s plenty to inspire any presenter who wants to continue the long tradition of calling out the Oscars — at the Oscars.