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The Big O: When Race is an Issue in the Oscars

by Susan Wloszczyna
September 20, 2013 1:00 PM
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What does a black leading lady have to do to win an Academy Award again? Considering there seems to be a renaissance in black cinema, you would think the timing would be perfect. But you would be wrong.

For instance, no film came out of the Toronto International Film Festival this month with more Oscar momentum than 12 Years a Slave. The deal was sealed when the monumentally moving true story of a 19th century free black man who was kidnapped and sold into bondage earned the event's biggest prize: The People's Choice Award, whose winner is decided just the way it sounds - voted on by those who attend the public screenings.

Past recipients including The Silver Linings Playbook, The King's Speech, Precious and Slumdog Millionaire went on to claim multiple Academy Award nominations and, in the case of The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, the best-picture trophy.

But even before 12 Years a Slave - which begins its run in theaters on Oct. 18 - won the coveted honor, it was clear this was going to be an Oscar contest distinguished and perhaps defined by race in many ways. Summer provided two other potential contenders:  Fruitvale Station, based on a shooting case that echoes circumstances involved in the recent Trayvon Martin trial, and Lee Daniels' The Butler, another reality-spun tale that follows the rise of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of  black butler at the White House.

Yes, the themes are familiar: Slavery, crime, the fight for equality. But at least the perspective of these tales aren't diluted by having white protagonists share the spotlight, as in The Blind Side, The Help and Django Unchained.  Also noteworthy is that all three movies are directed by black male directors, all with distinctly different styles: Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels for The Butler.  Considering that only two black filmmakers have ever been Oscar-nominated in the directing category - Daniels for 2009's Precious and John Singleton for 1991's Boyz n the Hood  -- at least some progress is on the verge of being made.

The reason for this apparent surge in black-themed movies and filmmakers, the type of revival that hasn't been seen since Hollywood was inspired to co-opt hip-hop culture and rap in the early '90s, is probably a combination of having a black president, certain historical anniversaries concerning the Civil War and the March on Washington, and a growing pool of socially and cinematically aware talent. It doesn't hurt that such recent titles as The Help and Django Unchained have made some serious box-office cash, either.

But how does this effect the acting categories, especially for women since so few of this year's black-themed films with awards potential have females as their main focus?

The good news is that that the three of the supporting actress slots could easily go to black performers: Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station, Oprah Winfrey in The Butler and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave.

Traditionally, black female nominees have fared well in secondary roles. After all, Hattie McDaniel was the first black acting nominee and won as Scarlett O'Hara's maid Mammy in 1939's Gone With the Wind. Among the 16 black actresses who have competed for the supporting honor, four more have won - the most black performers in any acting category:  Whoopi Goldberg in 1990's Ghost, Jennifer Hudson in 2006's Dreamgirls, Mo'Nique in Precious and Spencer in 2011's The Help.

A more shameful statistic is found in the best actress category, however. Not only has it produced the fewest black nominees compared to the other three acting categories - 10, compared to 19 for leading men, 17 for supporting males and 16 for supporting females.  But, only one woman - Halle Berry in 2001's Monster's Ball - has actually won best actress as Oscar enters its 86th year of existence.   

Viola Davis came thisclose to becoming No. 2 as a '60s-era black maid in The Help. But she had the bad luck of going up against Meryl Streep – up for her 17th Oscar for The Iron Lady.

Even more depressing is how little opportunity came Berry's way after she made history alongside Denzel Washington, who became only the second black lead actor after Sidney Poitier in 1963's Lilies of the Field to win thanks to his villainous turn in Training Day. Since then, Washington has tried directing, done commercial fare with interesting directors and was nominated for his sixth Oscar as the substance-abusing pilot in Flight last year.

Berry, meanwhile, became a Bond girl, stunk up the joint as Catwoman, tried to impress in the ambitious Cloud Atlas only to be mired in the horrible Movie 43 this year. At least she has her ongoing mutant role in the X-Men series to keep her warm and comfortable.

Then again, judging what is out there just by what is deemed Oscar-nomination-worthy is probably too restricting. To make up for her poorly received portrait of South Africa's first lady in the recent Winnie Mandela, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson returns to her musical roots in Black Nativity this November. Even more exciting, the director is black and female: Kasi Lemmons of Eve's Bayou fame, in her first behind-the-camera effort in five years.

I had the privilege to visit the Harlem set of Black Nativity early this year, and if the promise of seeing Mary J. Blige sing on a basketball court with a platinum Afro and a giant pair of angel wings doesn't get you excited, then nothing will.

And next spring, we can look forward to Belle, the true-life 18th century period piece about a mixed-race heiress who fought against slavery in England - also directed by a black woman, Amma Asante.

It took over two centuries before the United States elected its first black president. One hopes it won't take that long for another black women to reign supreme as best actress.

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  • Accidental Visitor | September 22, 2013 9:11 AMReply

    "It took over two centuries before the United States elected its first black president. One hopes it won't take that long for another black women to reign supreme as best actress."

    That line is a bit over the top considering it DIDN"T take as long for a black actress winner to come about in the first place as it did a black president. I understand what you were going for there but....come on.


  • Carrie | September 21, 2013 10:47 PMReply

    I have faith that Viola Davis will win at some point. She was devastating in Doubt. Such an immense talent.

  • Donna | September 20, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    The role that Halle Berry played in Monster's Ball was the best role written for a black woman in the history of Hollywood yet many black actresses complained about the story. Black actresses have a reputation for being very uptight and way too particular. Most of the screenwriters in Hollywood are white males, so there's really no incentive for them to write anything of substance for black women because they'll probably be criticized.

  • bb | September 20, 2013 11:15 PM

    "Black actresses have a reputation for being very uptight and way too particular."

    Oh, fa real? I guess I never got that memo. Please, Donna, elaborate on that statement. Sooooo black actresses wanting more diverse roles other than the maid, the whore, or the mammy are being "too particular"? We should just sit back and take whatever we can get just because, as you admitted, "most of the screenwriters in Hollywood are white males"?

    How about looking at those white males and asking them why they only see stereotypes when they write POC in their scripts? That's the first place to start....

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