Academy Awards 2011: The Unbearable Whiteness of the Oscars


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It’s a wonder that the security guards at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t stop Mo’nique and make her show ID when she arrived to help announce the Oscar nominations early Tuesday at the organization’s Beverly Hills headquarters. After all, she was the only person of color involved with the extravaganza, since the 83rd annual Oscar nominations have the dubious distinction of being an all-white affair.

Setting aside the more obscure, technical categories, when it comes to the best picture award along with the major nominations for acting, writing and directing, there are, ahem, zero people of color in the Oscar race this year.


There are so few significant African American characters in any of the 10 films nominated for best picture that comedian Aziz Ansari did a bit about it at the Producer’s Guild Awards on Saturday night, wondering why there couldn’t have been at least one black kid checking his Facebook account in “The Social Network,” adding that things were so white that in “127 Hours,” when James Franco’s hiker character cuts off his arm, it doesn’t even turn black.

It’s hard not to notice how few minorities had any visible roles in this year’s most lauded films. “The Social Network” offers us a virtually lilywhite Harvard; “The Fighter” is set in a oh-so-white, blue-collar Boston neighborhood; “The King’s Speech” depicts an all-white, upper-crust, 1930s-era London; “Toy Story 3,” like most Pixar films, is set in a fantasy suburbia without any obvious references to minorities; while “True Grit” takes us back to the Old West, where the only black faces I can remember seeing are that of a manservant and a stable boy.

And if you’re wondering about lead actor nominee Javier Bardem, he’s from Spain.

The fault lies not with the academy, which has in recent years happily given out the occasional statuette to a black actor or actress lucky enough to get a big part in a serious film. Mo’Nique was on hand Tuesday morning because she won for supporting actress last year for her role in “Precious,” a film made by Lee Daniels, an African American filmmaker. Forest Whitaker won a lead actor Oscar in 2007 for “The Last King of Scotland,” and Halle Berry won a lead actress Oscar in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball” on the same night Denzel Washington won lead actor for “Training Day.”

You can argue that some minorities have been snubbed, starting with Spike Lee, who’s never been nominated for a directing award, not even for landmark films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.” But the Oscars reflect what’s happening in the marketplace. And the cold truth is that black talent rarely receives Oscar opportunities because it works in one of the most minority-free industries in America.

Two African American coaches have faced off in the Super Bowl. Black coaches have won NBA championships. A black man has served on the Supreme Court, been a senator, an astronaut, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, won a Pulitzer Prize and — oh, yes — is currently serving as president of the United States. But if you look at the people who make the decisions about what movies are made in Hollywood, you’d have to look far and wide to find any prominent AfricanAmerican or Latino executives.

There are no studio chairmen or heads of production who are black or Latino. In fact, there are barely any people of color in any high-level positions at any major studio, talent agency or management firm. When I asked a couple of reporter pals to name the most powerful black executive in town, a lot of head-scratching ensued before we decided that the person with the most clout was probably James Lassiter, Will Smith’s longtime business partner and production company chief.


Smith has plenty of juice in town, with every studio salivating at the chance to make his next project. But he’s an anomaly and largely more interested in making commercial movies than Oscar-oriented fare (although he has twice been nominated for an acting Oscar).

Of last year’s top-grossing films, only one in the top 40 was directed by anyone of color, “The Book of Eli,” which starred Washington and was directed by the Hughes Brothers. Tyler Perry had two films in the Top 100 box-office grossers domestically, but like most films with African American casts, they made virtually no money overseas, which is where Hollywood increasingly looks for its profits.

What does this have to do with the Oscars? The films that end up being Academy Award nominees are usually labors of love and rarely feature the kind of easily accessible action heroes or broadly comic characters that suit a studio’s bottom-line sensibility. If you don’t have a person of color in the room where the decision-making happens, fervently arguing why a film should be brought into the world, it’s awfully hard for a project revolving around African American characters to emerge with a greenlight or any substantial financial backing.

Black and Latino actors can get parts as soldiers in an action film or comic sidekicks in a comedy, but when it comes to the kind of dramatic roles that attract Oscar attention, they need a lucky break, like the one Mo’Nique got from having a black filmmaker making the casting choices. Or the one Jennifer Hudson got, with her role in “Dreamgirls” established on the stage. Or the one Morgan Freeman got, landing a Oscar nomination last year as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” because he has a long track record of working with Clint Eastwood, and well, who else could play Mandela?

Hollywood is usually impervious to embarrassment, but perhaps this is one of those signal moments when the industry should engage in a little soul-searching about the image it projects to the outside world. At Oscar time, the spotlight is on show business, which in an increasingly multicultural country turns out to be a business that is just as white on the outside as it is on the inside.

--Patrick Goldstein