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

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

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 86
th 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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Comments

Accidental Visitor

"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

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

Donna

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.

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