I didn’t watch the record-setting Powerball drawing last week, but I did watch as the Oscar nominations were announced. I paused my morning routine, poised to cheer, to imagine nominees’ reactions and fantasize about all the shine heading toward some deserving black folks whose stories had thrilled me.
Then name after name was read, not one of them black, and I was stunned. And stung. There’s always a moment of how can this happen in 2016? This is the second year in a row in which the acting nominees are all white — and it reflects a long, troubled history. With the Powerball, I at least hit two numbers. I wonder what the odds are that Hollywood ever really sees itself? Or ever truly sees other people?
When the nominations were read, Tim Gordon’s phone started buzzing, and it didn’t stop all day. “You don’t have to tell me about this whole disappointment that people feel,” says Gordon, a Washington writer. “I was a kid who loved watching award shows. It would always bother me as I grew older that I would see these really cool performances and they would always get totally ignored. . . . I said, ‘Man, instead of complaining about it, I’ll just create a show of my own.’ ” He started the Black Reel Awards in 1999 to recognize African American achievements in television and film.
The awards, voted on by film critics and others who work in the industry, have been awarded mostly online. (In 2005 there was a live show, and Jamie Foxx sent a video acceptance. Gordon is hoping to go live again soon.)
“Every 12 months, you see people getting all in their feelings” about who gets nominated and wins, “and rightfully so,” Gordon says. But he points to the Academy’s history and makeup. From 1927 to 1999, a total of 14 black people won Oscars in all categories, he says. In acting categories, only 24 people of color have won since 1927, according to a Post report. More than 90 percent of Oscar voters are white and nearly 80 percent are male, according to the Los Angeles Times, and those numbers directly affect the range of stories and portrayals.
The Academy’s voting body seems “most comfortable seeing African Americans played in certain ways,” Gordon says.
In 2002, Halle Berry won the best-actress award, playing a grieving, desperately poor Southern woman in “Monster’s Ball,” which featured a graphic sex scene. That year, Denzel Washington won for playing a corrupt cop in “Training Day.” In 2010, comedienne Mo’Nique won playing a grotesquely cruel mother In “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” In 2012, Octavia Spencer won for best supporting actress, playing a maid in “The Help.” As a matter of fact, the very first black woman to win an Oscar was playing a maid: In 1940, Hattie McDaniel won for “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind.” Oscar likes blacks playing historical roles, too: Foxx and Forest Whitaker both won for biopics.
It’s not that these weren’t all deserving performances — they were — just that Hollywood consistently seems more comfortable with black actors in historical, pathological, subservient (or saintly) roles. “White actors also get those kinds of roles,” Gordon says, but they also get more balance and a broader range. There’s less recognition for, say, a Will Smith as the quietly intense doctor in “Concussion,” which earned him a Golden Globe nomination last month.
“When movies with black casts do in fact receive wide acclaim, it’s generally because said films are race and content-specific,” Morgan Jerkins wrote on the website Quartz last year. “We cannot be whimsical concierges like in ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ or washed-up actors like in ‘Birdman.’ Put simply, films with primarily white casts are afforded complexity — even superficiality — in the eyes of their audience. But for black-centered films, the same is not true.”
Sometimes it strikes me not so much as racism but as a processing disorder. And it doesn’t afflict just Hollywood. A decade ago, when I wrote a book about being a middle-class, working professional and mother, I noted that white women often seemed not to have language for talking to me about complex cultural issues as an equal. I joked that if I’d written “Up from Crack,” a lot of those women might have had an easier time embracing me.
Sitting on the edge of my bed last week, I cheered when Sylvester Stallone was nominated for best supporting actor in “Creed,” but I was disappointed that director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan were not. New black heroes are telling new black stories for a new generation, a colleague remarked, and it’s painful that’s not recognized.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.