Three black actors are up for the top acting prize at this year’s Academy Awards. It should be a cause for rejoicing. Instead, it points to the appalling racism in the film industry today. Best Actress nominee Halle Berry said as much recently when she accepted the Best Actress award from the Screen Actors Guild for her role in Monster’s Ball.
Berry is right – though the big players in the Dream Factory do not appreciate ingratitude, and her remark may cost her the other prize. When it comes to what is euphemistically known as “The Business”, blacks are not considered people with whom business is done. This is despite the enormous box-office clout, well out of proportion to their numbers, that black people wield. Indeed, if African Americans were a separate nation, we would give Bollywood a run for its money.
The three nominations – aside from Berry, there is Will Smith for Ali and Denzel Washington for Training Day – are, according to most black people in Hollywood, just that: three nominations, nothing more or less. They are no benchmark, no watershed. Sidney Poitier, who is being honoured this year for his contribution to the industry, calls Hollywood “deeply disappointing”, although he is happy for and proud of the three nominated actors.
Julia Roberts is campaigning for Denzel Washington finally to win the prize he deserves – but even the Queen of Hollywood cannot break through the curtain that keeps black people at the back of the bus.
The spectre of racism is everywhere. Everyone knows this, but if you say it out loud and too often, you could bring down the curse of Howard E Rollins Jr.
Rollins, a New York stage actor, landed, at the beginning of the 1980s, what was called “the Sidney Poitier part” in Milos Forman’s Ragtime. The film did well and Rollins was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. But, unfortunately for him, he began to speak out about the discrimination he witnessed. He didn’t know that this, for a black actor, is a no-no. He went on to make other movies, but slowly began to vanish from the silver screen. He never quite had the career he was expected to have, and died at a young age.
I ran into Rollins once on a New York City subway. He told me that he had been frozen out. “My mouth’s just too big,” he said. And that was it. The End of Howard Rollins. Cut. Print. It’s a wrap.
The last time three black actors were nominated for lead roles in the same year was in 1972: Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues. None of the films was memorable, but they were indicative of the liberal, post-civil rights, Vietnam-era sentiment of the time.
Black people have been in Hollywood since the early two-reelers almost a century ago. Yet here are the numbers that count: Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, Gone with the Wind, 1939; Sidney Poitier, Best Actor, Lilies of the Field, 1963. In the 38 Academy Award ceremonies since Poitier’s triumph, no other black leading actor or actress has won the top prize. Despite 780 total acting nominations and 152 winners since Poitier’s award, only four winners have been black, and all have won in supporting roles: Louis Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Denzel Washington in Glory (1989), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990) and Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire (1996).
Between 1975 and 1980, there were no black acting nominees at all, until protests started. The most recent protest began in 1995 after a People magazine cover story, titled “Hollywood blackout”, pointed out that only one of that year’s 166 Oscar nominees was black: the director Dianne Houston, co-nominated for a short film. She lost.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has stated that black people in LA are keeping their heads down so as not to scupper the three actors’ chances.
But the problem of black under-representation has not been solved and will not go away even if Berry and Washington or Smith win. Actors may be in the limelight, but black producers, directors, writers, directors of photography and techies still find it difficult to get jobs. Most important of all, there are no black faces among the studio execs who can give the green light to a project. These are the people needed to change the industry, and they are not there.
The bottom line is that Hollywood is about relationships: who wants to be seen with whom, who wants to secure favours from whom, who wants to “hook up”. It’s a question of familiarity, comfort-zone casting, and who’s seen “in the ranks”.
It has been almost a century since cinema’s first undisputed masterpiece: D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. It has been more than 70 years since Al Jolson put on blackface to cry “Mammy!” and open up the movies to sound, yet black people are relatively no better off in Hollywood than we were then.
Think of it – four black people on 24 March, posing together for the press backstage after the ceremony: Sidney Poitier with his Special Achievement Oscar; Halle Berry, Best Actress; Will Smith or Denzel Washington, Best Actor; and past Oscar winner and compere Whoopi Goldberg.
In your dreams.