Each year, Hollywood celebrates what it considers to be the best in motion picture entertainment. The event, better known as the “Oscars”, presents awards to everyone they perceive as the best that year by category including best leading actress, best leading actor, best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best director, best musical composer, best screenwriter(s), etc. Nominees are decided based on a vote of The Academy, a collective body of persons deemed to possess expert knowledge in the respective fields of expertise within the business of motion picture development. Final award recipients are also determined by a vote of The Academy. Hence, it is widely perceived that a nod, or nomination, by The Academy, gives an individual or artistic endeavor even greater credibility.
It should go without saying that the Oscars are a monumental, cultural event. Television and print media outlets, morning shows, and web-based entertainment sites, to name a few, invest heavily in the coverage of the Oscars. All aspects of the Oscars are covered and speculated upon including the attendees’ fashion choices, after parties, menu, and of course, the nominees and eventual winners. Because of the attention that Oscar nominees receive, it is often a career validating or catapulting moment for those in the movie making business.
This year, as in previous years, there has been an enormous amount of discussion about the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees. (In fact, this year’s ceremony has earned the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.) Not one person of color was nominated for the categories of best lead actress, best lead actor, best supporting actress, and best supporting actor. This was especially an issue for many, as the movie Selma that, chronicled the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, did not receive the nominations many believed it deserved. A range of hypotheses have been offered in response to the lack of diverse nominations. Some have contended there simply was not an adequate number of persons of color in leading roles this past year while others have contended that the demographic composition of the Academy obscures the unbiased perception and subsequent equitable selection of nominees.
One could argue that the convergence of the two perpetuates a cyclical relationship that prevents the nomination of movie artists and experts that reflects the demographic make-up of the United States. To become a member of the Academy one must first be an Oscar nominee or be vouched for by several members of a branch within the Academy. Even then, upon nomination, a lengthy vetting process takes place to determine if the person will be accepted as a member. As noted in multiple articles since the announcement of this year’s nominations, a lack of racially and ethnically diverse nominees is an ongoing issue within Hollywood. Thus, it would be difficult for the vast majority of racial and/or ethnic minority actors and actresses within Hollywood to even meet the minimum requirement to become a member of the Academy, as they simply are not being nominated at a rate proportionate to their white counterparts.
When they are nominated, it is typically because they have perpetuated a stereotype that is comfortable or familiar to “mainstream” Hollywood. Last year, the beautiful and amazingly talented Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as a slave who, like many others, endured an unfathomable amount of physical, sexual, and mental abuse at the hands of her master and his wife. Prior to Miss Nyong’o, in 2012, the equally beautiful and talented Mrs. Viola Davis and Ms. Octavia Spencer received Oscar nominations for best lead actress and best supporting actress respectively for their roles as maids (and mammies) in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. In 2010, Mo’Nique won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance as a welfare-dependent, abusive mother. Preceding Miss Nyong’o, Mrs. Davis, Ms. Spencer, and Mo’Nique, the legendary Halle Berry won for her role in Monster’s Ball as a low-income, single mother. Like these amazing women, Denzel Washington has also won two Oscars. His first was for best supporting actor for his role as an escaped slave who later joins the Union Army and his second was for best lead actor for his role as a corrupt cop.
Please note, while the above actors and actresses are indeed some of the best Hollywood has to offer, they were all awarded Oscars playing those roles that are perceived to be stereotypically representative of the “black experience” in America. Of course, one could argue that these roles are grounded in a historical context, as African Americans, or blacks, have historically been slaves and/or domestic workers. However, what does it say about Hollywood that only when persons of color play in roles that are stereotypical, and to a large degree, representative of painful (and shameful) moments in American history that they should be acknowledged for their acting acumen? Moreover, aside from those historical roles that, coincidentally can only be played by blacks for accuracy purposes, more contemporary roles that propagate the notion that blacks are morally bankrupt seem to be worthy of Hollywood’s approval as well. For this reason, it should be no surprise that a member of the Academy stated that there was “no art” to Selma. Although Selma was historically grounded and represented a painful (and shameful) moment in American history, it also shed light on the humanity, collective resilience, morality, and determination of blacks in this country. For that, Hollywood could not award it.