What a non-difference a little more than a year makes.
Last year’s pre-Academy Awards fever became fueled by controversy when the Rev. Jesse Jackson descended upon Hollywood to protest the almost total absence of black and minority nominees.
A number of entertainment unions and community advocacy groups joined forces with the civil rights leader in what Jackson proclaimed was the first step in the fight against “institutional racism” in the entertainment industry. The campaign received mixed reviews inside and outside Hollywood, with some accusing Jackson of bad timing.
But when this year’s crop of Oscar nominees was announced early Tuesday, Jackson had other concerns. He was behind bars in Chicago, having been arrested the day before in a protest over hiring and firing practices at a construction site.
So Jackson was not available to react to the two major black entries in this years’ Oscar field--best supporting actor nominee Cuba Gooding Jr. for “Jerry Maguire” and best supporting actress nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste for “Secrets & Lies.”
But despite the prominence of Gooding’s and Jean-Baptiste’s nominations, there was little celebration from minority leaders Tuesday who maintained that last year’s Jackson-led campaign did little to change the overall mind-set of Hollywood decision makers to increase the employment of minorities in front of and behind the camera.
Although statistics conclude that blacks and Latinos make up about a third of the movie-going audience, the current crop of Oscar nominees is further evidence that ethnic groups are being excluded from films, they said.
“These two nominations represent a small step forward, but Hollywood continues a basic whiteout of African Americans and other minorities as reflected by the very small number of minority nominees,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
Added Zara Buggs Taylor, executive administrator for employment diversity for the Writers Guild of America, West: “The Oscars are just indicative of a much larger problem. It’s not really about the Oscars. It’s silly to focus on them as a primary target. They are the end of the process, and they want to focus on the beginning of the process. If minorities aren’t there at the beginning, why should they be there at the end?”
And Jerry Velasco, president of the Latino actors’ group Nosotros, said: “The employment of Latinos and Asians seems to have dropped. We need to concentrate on getting the numbers up so that we can be at the Oscars.”
Omitted from the nominations were critically acclaimed performances such as Denzel Washington in “Courage Under Fire,” Samuel L. Jackson in “A Time to Kill” and Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor.” Some in the groups noted that there were no major Latino or Asian American contenders that might have been considered for a nomination.
Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, said: “I believe there is a direct correlation between the creation of job opportunities and the number of nominees you see every year. I don’t think it’s racism so much as the lack of opportunities.”
Although Jackson was not available Tuesday, his Rainbow/Push Coalition issued a statement Monday indicating that this year’s Academy Awards was still on his agenda.
“We are still in the process of deciding what to do on Oscar Night 1997, but whatever the form of the protest, we will be telling our story and giving our report on this industry which has the power to define our options and shape our image,” the statement said.
Some advocates blamed the lack of change and opportunity on the absence of meaningful follow-though on last year’s Oscar protest by Jackson. At that time, he announced the formation of the Hollywood Rainbow Coalition to negotiate with film executives, as well as to plan possible boycotts and other consumer action against films that exclude minorities.
Following one press conference, Jackson said the coalition would target “an upcoming film” that the group felt excluded or distorted the portrayal of minorities. “We are going to open up the consciousness of America,” Jackson declared.
But no formal protests materialized. Jackson came under fire from Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg, who joked during the ceremony about the protest, and blacks within the industry largely failed to rally behind him. Jackson soon became involved with affirmative action, the November elections and numerous other controversies around the country.
Said Velasco: “The reality is that we can’t depend on Jesse Jackson to continue our fight. Jesse has to realize that if he’s not going to go all the way, he shouldn’t get it started. It’s like he’s leading or backing us, then he drops the ball in the middle of the road.”
Taylor of the Writers Guild added: “Jesse’s presence was a catalyst. But when he left and got involved in the election, the emphasis died down. The fever was still there, but the will to continue the dialogue within the power struggle vanished. He holds their feet to the fire.”
However, Velasco and others added that the groups involved with Jackson’s Oscar coalition also had to take some of the responsibility.
“This is not a Jesse Jackson fight,” said Sonny Skyhawk, president of American Indians in Film. “We all have to work together. We need to become a lot more united. Only then will we have power.”
Some said they felt that the situation would improve in the next few years. Taylor said the opening up of opportunities for minorities in television would lead to more opportunities in films. And Mfume said he and the NAACP were determined to meet with studio heads to convince them that the hiring of minorities in front of and behind the cameras makes good business sense.
“We want to sensitize the industry on why it is their best interest to expand the opportunities,” Mfume said. “That way, we will soon be a lot more represented at the Oscars.”