#OscarsSoWhite Through the Decades
Surprise, Surprise! Here we are again in 2020, the year of our lord Beyonce Knowles-Carter, fixing our fingers to type the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite again. Who could have expected such a turn of events?
The answer to that question should be “everyone,” yet for some inexplicable reason there’s still shock and dismay that The Academy Awards almost completely shut out people of color from their nominations. This happens almost every year, so why are we still surprised that an awards show voting body that up until recently had the demographic makeup of a Klan rally doesn’t appreciate the complex and unapologetic excellence that is Black film?
#OscarsSoWhite began trending in 2015, but the white supremacy and unmitigated caucasity of The Academy Awards has been apparent since the show began in 1929 (admittedly, not a stellar time period for black people). Since then, the Oscars have habitually ignored some of the most incredible and iconic Black films, filmmakers, and actors. Here’s a look at some of the most egregious Black Oscar snubs throughout the award show’s 90 year history.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
The Academy Awards completely shut out the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking playdespite the powerhouse performances from Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil. Perhaps even the thought of a fictional Black family integrating a white neighborhood was too radical for the lily-white liking of The Academy, especially prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing. Poitier went on to become the first black man to win an Oscar one year later for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963).
This historical drama based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Mongomery shot director Ava DuVernay to stardom. The film received rave reviews for its unflinching depiction of the public and private life of Dr. King during this intentionally specific time period. However, the Academy only gave the film two Oscar nominations, ignoring both DuVernay’s brilliant direction and David Oyelowo’s hauntingly kindred portrayal of Dr. King. The film did snag the Best Song trophy for “Glory” by Common and John Legend, but lost the Best Picture award to Birdman. The Academy still has yet to nominate a Black woman for Best Director.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee’s biopic portraying the life and death of activist Malcolm X is a staple viewing in black households around the world. The community regards this as of Lee’s best works, with an unforgettable performance from Denzel Washington in the titular role. However, much like Malcolm himself, the film was perhaps “too Black” for many white viewers, including the Academy. It nominated Malcolm X for two Awards, Best Actor and Best Costume design, but decidedly left Lee out of the Best Director category. Denzel didn’t win that year, but has been nominated nine times with, two wins for Glory (1990) and Training Day (2002). Spike Lee finally won his first Oscar in 2019, snagging Best Adapted Screenplay for BlackKklansman (2018).
Angela Bassett has been the Queen of Black film and television for the last four decades, with a resume as strong as her famously toned arms. The two-time Yale grad has portrayed many iconic women across the span of Black history, including Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X (1992), Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Coretta Scott King in Betty and Coretta (2013) and, most notably, Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), for which she received her first and only Academy Award nomination. Despite her illustrious career and mile-long IMDB page, The Queen of Wakanda has yet to take home an Oscar.
The Color Purple (1985)
On paper, the adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has everything The Academy historically loves from a black film: Emotionally engaging performances! A pre-Civil Rights era setting! Black women experiencing sexual and domestic abuse! A white male director! Oprah! Thus they nominated The Color Purple an astounding 11 Oscars… and it lost every single one of them. Just goes to show that there is no guaranteed way to The Academy’s heart for black artists.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee makes a second appearance on this list for his star-studded dramedy, set on the hottest day in Brooklyn where racial tensions rise as high as the temperatures. Lee wrote, directed, and starred in the film alongside Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Rosie Perez (just to name a few). However, in true Old White Man fashion, the only actor The Academy nominated from the film was another white man, Danny Aiello. They nominated Lee for Best Screenplay, but he lost to Dead Poets Society.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures brings an important and little-known part of Black history to the silver screen. Loosely based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, this biopic tells the story of three black women mathematicians who worked for NASA during the 1960s. Though criticized by some Black audience members for adding a white savior character that historically did not exist, Hidden Figures featured compelling performances from Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Taraji P. Henson and the movie became the highest-grossing Oscar-nominee of the year. Unfortunately, all the money and Kevin Costner monologues in the world couldn’t fix The Academy’s racism problem, and Hidden Figures didn’t win in any of the three categories in which it was nominated.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross gives the performance of a lifetime as fabled jazz singer Billie Holliday. Starring alongside Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, Ross brings Billie’s autobiography to life, chronicling her rise from brothel housekeeper to jazz royalty, and her struggle with drug abuse that led to her untimely death at the age of 44. The Academy nominated Lady Sings the Blues for five Awards, including Best Actress for Ross, but the film lost in all five categories.
Will Smith has come a long way from “chilling out max” on the playgrounds in West Philadelphia. Since starring in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at the tender age of 17, Smith has become a global superstar, with many impressive film acting credits. The Academy has nominated the rapper-turned-actor for two Best Actor awards–one for his titular role in the biopic Ali (2001) and the other for starring along his son Jayden in The Pursuit of Happyness (2007). Smith didn’tt receive either award and The Academy has since snubbed him for his critically-acclaimed performances in Seven Pounds (2008) and Concussion (2015). Will the 2020s be the decade Will Smith finally takes home his Oscar?
Ryan Coogler has quickly become one of the most prominent and distinct voices in Black film. The 33-year old director burst into the spotlight in 2013 with his independent film Fruitvale Station, a heart wrenching depiction of Oscar Grant III’s last hours before being shot and killed by Bay Area police. Coogler then wowed audiences with Creed (2013), which got Sylvester Stallone a nod for Best Supporting Actor. Coogler cemented his place in Hollywood when he directed Black Power superhero blockbuster Black Panther (2018). Black Panther made waves when the Academy gave it seven Oscar nominations and three wins for its breathtaking design. However, the Academy has consistently shut Coogler out of the Best Director category.
There’s no doubt that despite being overlooked by The Academy, these black films and the artists behind them have still managed to have an immeasurable impact on our culture and in our hearts. So why do we still look to the Oscars as the authority on the caliber and quality of film when The Academy has proven time and time again that sees the artform through mayonnaise-covered glasses? It’s time for Black people and folks of other marginalized identities to stop nailing our artistic worth to an institution that wasn’t built to acknowledge our greatness. Instead we should appreciate films for the stories they tell, the conversations they start, and the magic they make us feel when we see ourselves represented on screen. Next year, I hope #OscarsSoWhite is replaced by #OscarsSoOver. Spend those three hours watching one of these incredible films instead.