The Oscar Race


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Josh Board, Fox 5 movie critic, member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, and author of this article. He has been professionally reviewing movies since 1990.

If the nominations are wrong…I don’t want to be white.

But the Oscar nominations aren’t wrong. Wait. Scratch that. They are wrong. The nominations are actually very flawed. What they aren’t is racist. Let me explain, in ways that might have me going all over the map here, but bear with me.

I just finished watching a news program in which Hillary Clinton said that the Republicans shouldn’t block a nominee that President Obama selects to replace Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. She mentioned, among other things, that it would be racist. Uh, no it wouldn’t. The Republicans would be against any Democrat nominee Obama would want to name. Just as the Democrats were when George W. Bush wanted to nominate Miguel Estrada Castaneda. Yet nobody at that time said it was because he was Latino.

I watched the Grammy Awards the other night, wondering if idiot Kanye West would jump on stage and complain about Taylor Swift winning the Grammy. For those that don’t remember, he claimed Beyonce deserved the win over her, previously.

When sports talk show hosts spoke about how people hated Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, black callers to the programs (and some African-American talk show hosts), claimed that people hated Newton because he was black. No; it was because he acted like a dope with his dances in the end zone after scoring touchdowns, and most recently, pouting after losing the Super Bowl. We hated Michael Vick because he had vicious dog fights, not because of his race. We all loved the other two black Eagles QBs — Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb.

Sports shows didn’t attack another black quarterback that lost a Super Bowl last year — Russell Wilson, who has always been the epitome of class. And ya know what? Those same sports shows are now attacking Peyton Manning for rumors he ordered banned drugs to his house, and an incident that occurred with a female trainer 20 years previously (as well they should, on both counts).

A few people have claimed everyone is attacking Bill Cosby because he’s a successful black man.

I could go on and on with idiotic examples of supposed racism. And don’t get me wrong…that’s not to say racism doesn’t exist in society. It just doesn’t exist in the entertainment field. Listen, Michael Jackson made a billion dollars, and it’s most likely he molested kids (best case scenario, he didn’t molest kids, but had inappropriate relationships with them).

Now, let’s get to the Oscars. I got off track a bit in my opening to make a point.

The Oscars, every single year, get things wrong. Every one of us critics cringe when we see the nominations. This goes back to the time of the first ceremony. An example I like to use is Raging Bull in 1980. It lost out on “best picture” to Ordinary People. Most people don’t even remember Ordinary People, while Raging Bull is considered the best movie of that decade (and is on all lists of best movies ever made). If this was a movie about Joe Louis instead of Jake LaMotta, people would be complaining it lost because of racism. Perhaps it’s because the Academy likes movies with people dying, not boxing.

I was crushed about one African-American actor not getting nominated, and surprised about two others. What killed me was that newcomer RJ Cyler didn’t get nominated for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s hardly racism, though. I’m guessing most of the Academy didn’t see the indie picture, which is a shame. It was wonderful. Nobody else got nominations from that either.

I also thought Jason Mitchell, who played Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton was brilliant. Yet this is a guy that had 6 kids from 5 different women, in a rap band that has misogynistic lyrics, and a band member (who is now a billionaire) that routinely beat women. Perhaps that’s why the Academy didn’t fall all over themselves for this movie. Of course, the fact that the only nomination it got was for screenplay, and that was written by two white people, helped fuel this bizarre fire.


Straight Outta Compton

Perhaps the Academy is just burned out on musical biopics. After all, Jamie Foxx won an Oscar playing Ray Charles (was the Academy not racist 12 years ago?). Speaking of 12 years, the film 12 Years a Slave – talk about “spoiler alert”; could we have come up with a different title? – won numerous Oscars. But I’m talking about musical biopics. Had Paul Giamatti gotten a nomination for Straight Outta Compton, while none of the other cast members had received one, that might have been reason to wonder. Although that leads to two other points. Giamatti was in the biopic of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy. I thought Paul Dano could’ve been nominated for that. He wasn’t. Also, if Giamatti had gotten nominated, that means very little in the race debate. People like to complain that Sylvester Stallone got a nomination for Creed, although Michael B. Jordan did not receive one. Yet if Jordan got nominated, it would’ve been a different category than Stallone. And that, right there, is the biggest problem the Academy has – they vote with their heart. Stallone is an older actor, and those types get nominated more often. They also like the rags-to-riches story (not just the fictional one, but the one where he wrote the original script for Rocky and shopped it around).

As a kid, I remember yelling at the TV set when Sean Connery won for The Untouchables. He didn’t deserve to win an Oscar for that, but that’s what the Academy does. It’s a popularity contest. And that popularity contest can help African-American actors, too. For example, Denzel Washington did not deserve a win for overacting in Training Day. Yet when Washington played a functioning alcoholic in Courage Under Fire — he wasn’t even nominated.

Jada Pinkett Smith has come out about this controversy, because husband Will Smith didn’t get a nomination for Concussion. He was great in that, but the movie wasn’t so good. His co-star Albert Brooks was great in it, too. And what I’d like to know is this: had Smith got nominated, would Jada have boycotted? I’m guessing not, but that would’ve just been one black actor nominated out of twenty. That makes her rather selfish, don’t you think? I’d also like her to explain how Will got nominated two other times for Oscars if the Academy is so racist (fun fact: Smith lost to black actors both times — Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington, respectively).

I thought Will Smith got screwed for not getting nominated in Six Degrees of Separation. I also didn’t think Stockard Channing (who is talented as hell) deserved to win her Oscar for that same movie. None of that has to do with race, though. The Academy probably felt Channing has done enough diverse roles in Hollywood to now warrant the win.


Beasts of No Nation

Another actor I was surprised didn’t get nominated was Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation. Now, I’m a member of the Broadcast Critics Association (Critics’ Choice Awards), and he won our acting award. Does that mean that all of us critics aren’t racist like the Academy members? Of course not! Heck, it would be hard to find a more liberal group than Hollywood actors/Academy members. Maybe the acting branch of the Oscars look at things differently than critics do.

The Critics’ Choice award for “best young performance” also went to the young Jacob Tremblay for Room (he was great in it). Again, I was bummed RJ Cyler didn’t win (and I told him that at the after party). It’s not that the Critics’ Choice group was “racist”, but that they probably felt a child of Jacob Tremblay’s age had a more difficult time of acting than Cyler, an older teenager, would have had when playing an angry high school student.

Whoopi Goldberg has been complaining a bit about the Oscar nominations. Strange, since she has hosted the awards a few times (and was awful at it), and won an Oscar for Ghost (she was fun in that). She did make a few good points, though. She said, “Don’t boycott [the awards], because that’s not fair to Chris Rock” – weird that people claiming the Oscars are racist haven’t mentioned the Academy president being black, or that they have Rock hosting the ceremony again). Goldberg also said that when people tell her a certain black actor should’ve gotten nominated, she sternly replies, “Okay, well…who would you take off the list of nominees that did get nominated?”

I would take Matt Damon off the list for The Martian (he basically played Matt Damon in space), and would put Elba in that spot. Yet for all those people that complained, last year, that the director of Selma got snubbed…what would they say about Ridley Scott not getting nominated for The Martian? Most people suspected he would not only get nominated, but would win the Oscar for direction. See how it works both ways? Not to mention the fact that Selma director Ava DuVernay is relatively new in the business, and didn’t direct a perfect film (and she changed some of the facts of the actual story, which turns a lot of people off).

I thought the cast of Ex Machina got snubbed (it did get a screenplay nomination). They’re all white. Alicia Vikander, who played a robot brilliantly, got nominated instead for The Danish Girl. That’s not because the Academy is racist -err, robotist – but that The Danish Girl is the type of movie the Academy loves. It’s a period piece based on a true story. The only thing the Academy would like more is if you put an alcoholic dying of cancer in the story.

There’s no way Jennifer Lawrence should’ve gotten nominated for Joy this year. The movie is awful, and although her performance was okay, she was too young to play that part. Yet the Academy loves her, ever since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (an amazing movie), to be in blockbusters like The Hunger Games…they like how she carries herself. Even when she drones on with controversial comments about women making less than men in Hollywood. That’s another dumb theory that can be debated another time.

I would’ve preferred a nomination for Lily Tomlin in Grandma over Lawrence in Joy. Guess what? Tomlin is a lesbian, and played one in this movie. Should gay/lesbian groups protest the Oscars for this? I’m guessing that would be hard, especially when Carol got nominations for the two women in the film, as well as a screenplay nod (none of whom deserved it).

Gay groups did get upset when Crash won the Oscar for “best picture” over Brokeback Mountain 10 years ago. I didn’t think either of those movies deserved nominations, but guess what? Crash dealt with blacks being judged unfairly by the color of their skin. Are all these people complaining about “Oscars so white” forgetting this?


The Hateful Eight

Some have complained that it was racism for Samuel Jackson not getting nominated for The Hateful Eight. Only white actress Jennifer Jason Leigh got the nomination for that. Yet it’s her first nomination. I would’ve liked to have seen her nominated for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dolores Claiborne, and a few other films.

Jackson got nominated for another Quentin Tarantino picture — Pulp Fiction. I’ve loved his performances in Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, the underrated Black Snake Moan, Unbreakable, and the Spike Lee joint Jungle Fever. There’s a scene when he’s whacked out on drugs and trying to borrow money from his mom that is just heartbreaking.

Spike Lee has talked about boycotting the Oscars this year. Two things bizarre about that. He got an honorary Oscar this year and his movies usually suck! And he’s the first one to complain about how others are making movies, or who it is the Academy is voting on. He can always be like Marlon Brandon and George C. Scott — refuse the Oscar he won. It probably looks nice on his shelf, though. Perhaps Spike should worry about making better films, it’s been a while since he’s had a good one.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter, Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way, The Artist), a member of the actors branch of the Academy, said, “I voted for a number of black performers, and I was sorry they weren’t nominated. But to imply that this is because all of us are racist is extremely offensive. I don’t want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I’m certainly not and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year.”

I heard a member of the Academy on a talk show that shed some light on things. Ever since the Academy went from nominating 5 movies for “best picture” up to a possibility of 10, it had one bad ramification. This year, 8 movies were nominated, and since Straight Outta Compton wasn’t one of them — cries of racism. Especially since they had two more spots they could fill in that category. A lot of people aren’t aware of how the voting works. Everyone votes on their 10 best movies. For a movie to get a nomination for “best picture” it can’t just be on everyone’s list. It has to get a certain number of votes in the first place to warrant that. So basically, if every Academy member put Straight Outta Compton on their top 10 list, but not a single person put it at number one, it wouldn’t make the list. Sure, that’s a tough criteria, but it proves a point — it wasn’t for any racist reasons or agenda. I’m surprised anybody would even put the film on their top 10 list. There were at least 25 better movies last year, but I digress.

Jada Pinkett Smith talked about needing more “diversity” (i.e. black people) as voting members of the Academy. The problem with that logic is this – she’s implying that black people will merely vote for other black people to get nominations. How is that a good thing? Shouldn’t it be about nominating the best performance, not the person that is closest to your skin color? Of course, she had to backtrack from that statement a few days later, claiming that black people wouldn’t just vote for other black actors. Uh, okay. Then what makes her think white actors only vote for other white actors?

An Asian movie critic and I were talking about this, and I asked him if he got upset no Asians were nominated. You can make that same argument about a lot of races. I believe only one Latino — director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant) got a nomination this year. He won last year for Birdman, which also makes me think…he isn’t white, so why is there all this talk of “Oscars so white”? They certainly aren’t for Inarritu.

I’ll end this piece with a long list of the various African-American Oscar nominees and winners over the years. You can decide if the “Oscars so white.”

  • In 1986, jazz musician Dexter Gordon got nominated for playing Thelonious Monk in Round Midnight (black keyboard legend Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for best song that year).
  • 1958 — Sidney Poitier nomination for The Defiant Ones. He won the Oscar five years later for Lilies in the Field.
  • James Earl Jones nominated for The Great White Hope in 1970.
  • Paul Winfield for Sounder in 1972, which had Best Actress and Best Actor nominees — both African-American.
  • In the late ‘80s, Morgan Freeman got nominated for Driving Miss Daisy. In 1992, Denzel Washington got nominated for Malcolm X. The racial controversy with that movie: famous director Norman Jewison (who tackled race with In the Heat of the Night) was originally set to do the picture, but Spike Lee complained so much about how a white man couldn’t tell that story, that Jewison met with him to discuss this. He found Lee so enthusiastic about doing it, he gave the picture to him. So when people like Whoopi say the problem is that more black films need to be made, well, African-Americans shouldn’t complain if white filmmakers are making those movies! Wait until the final product comes out before you bitch.
  • In 1993 — What’s Love Got to Do With It garnered Oscar nominations for the two African-American leads. The following year, Morgan Freeman got a nomination for The Shawshank Redemption (side note: we can stop having him narrate movies already?). That same year was when Sam Jackson got the nod for Pulp Fiction, too.
  • Denzel got nominated for The Hurricane in 1999, and he was better in that playing boxer Rubin Carter than what he won for a few years later — Training Day. That same year Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball. Seems like the Oscars weren’t so white that year.
  • Denzel also beat out Will Smith who was nominated for playing another boxer — Muhammad Ali. Maybe Jada didn’t complain because two African-Americans of the five nominees made it, I don’t know. I do know that when Smith was doing hip-hop and a cheesy TV show he probably never dreamed he’d be at the Oscars. It’s weird that years later he’s upset with how they do things.
  • Jamie Foxx didn’t think Oscars were so white in 2004. He won the gold statue for Ray, and he was also nominated for Supporting Actor that year in Collateral. How many actors, black or white, have done that in the same year? (I’ll answer that with this fun fact: six others have, including Al Pacino, Jessica Lange, and Holly Hunter).
  • We can go back to 1939 for the first African-American win — Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind. Sure, it would be 10 years later for another woman of color to win — Ethel Waters in Pinky; 10 years after that, Juanita Moore in the classic Imitation of Life.
  • 1967 was the Summer of Love, and it was love for African-American actresses — Carol Channing and Beah Richards both got nominations.
  • A lot of people talked about racism when The Color Purple, after getting an astounding 11 nominations, didn’t win a single Oscar. Yet two black actresses got nominations — Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery. And you thought Oprah was only known for her TV show. Speaking of people known for other things, singer Queen Latifah got a nomination for her great role in Chicago in 2002 (I highly recommend that soundtrack, her song on it being one of the highlights).
  • Another singer got nominated in her debut film — Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.
  • Nominations came for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Diahann Carroll and Rudy Dee.
  • In 2008, two nominations — Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. Mo’Nique won the following year for Precious, and in her debut of the same movie, Gabourey Sidibe got a nomination.
  • In 2004, Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle got nominated for Hotel Rwanda. A few years later, Jennifer Hudson won for Dreamgirls. Eddie Murphy also got nominated for that movie, and was favored to win. When he lost, he pulled a Cam Newton and stormed out during the broadcast (and went back to his usual — making millions for bad comedies).
  • Octavia Spencer won for The Help. Her co-star Viola Davis also got nominated for it. Lupita Nyong’o won for 12 Years a Slave a few years ago.
  • Morgan Freeman won for Million Dollar Baby.
  • More nominees include Rupert Crosse, Dorothy Dandrige, Howard Rollins, Adolph Caesar. In 1987, two African-Americans nominated — Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington (Street Smart and Cry Freedom).
  • My favorite movie of 1982 got an Oscar win for Louis Gosset, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman.
  • Two Africans have been nominated — Dijimon Hounsou for In America and Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips.  Hounsou, who has such a great presence on screen, got a nomination a few years later for Blood Diamond.
  • Denzel got another nomination for Glory. Jaye Davidson, in his debut for The Crying Game (not sure if it was supporting actor or actress, though).
  • Cuba Gooding, Jr., who has been complaining about the Oscars this year, won for Jerry Maguire. Since I’ve heard him say he was hoping OJ Simpson would get away with the murder, his opinion on any topic means nothing to me.
  • The late Michael Clarke Duncan got a nod for The Green Mile.
  • The youngest person to ever got nominated for an Oscar was black — Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.
  • Three African-American directors have gotten nominations over the years, and another won for directing a documentary. A fourth won for directing a documentary short.
  • Approximately six songs by black artists have won Oscars, most recently the song “Glory” from Selma.


So can somebody point out how Oscars have been so white the last 20 years? I’m all ears.


Author: Spotlight

Spotlight is a column for musicians and authors to share their opinions and insights with Cinema Spartan readers.

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  1. BRAVO Josh Board for being courageous enough to say it the way it is! Your article is spot on!

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  2. Good research and accurate assessment, thanks for the info.

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