In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. In his acceptance speech, Poitier referenced the “long journey” it took to get to that moment: it had taken 30 years for a black man to be nominated for the award, and another five for one to win. Poitier’s victory was widely praised as a sign of progress in Hollywood, as a door that had finally been opened.
Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker are, so far, the only men who have been able to walk through that “open” door.
This year, Chiwetel Ejiofor might join that list for his superb work in 12 Years a Slave. But Ejiofor’s status as the only black nominee in an otherwise all-white contest brings attention to an unfortunate fact about black actors at the Oscars: the Academy seems content with having only one (if any) black nominee per category.
In the Oscars’ 86-year history, only 20 Best Actor nominations have gone to black men. But even that number is misleadingly high, since those 20 nominations are shared among only 12 actors (Poitier was nominated twice, and Washington four times. Morgan Freeman has been nominated three times, but has yet to take home the award). For comparison, there have been 399 nominations split among 206 white men.
In years like this, with so many impressive performances from black actors, their near-total absence from the nominee list is conspicuous. Of the four black men who generated Oscar buzz for their performances (Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave) only one was nominated this month. The four other men who received nominations did great work, but it is hard to imagine that the Academy’s overwhelmingly white membership (94% of voters are white) did not affect the nomination process, and is not in some way accountable for the continued lack of a majority black category.
The four films that drew the most attention for black actors tell vastly different stories, but all share similar traits to films that have produced nominations for black actors in the past. The most commonly nominated roles for black men are historical figures (they account for 10 of 20 total nominations). Unlike white nominees, who have been recognized for portraying everyone from kings of England to Charlie Chaplin to J.M. Barrie, historical roles written for black actors are most often in stories about extreme suffering. Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel owner attempting to save people during the Rwandan genocide; Rubin Carter, a boxer falsely accused and imprisoned for murder; Solomon Northup, a free man forced into slavery. Other nominated roles are equally bleak: four nominations come from black men playing prisoners.
This all begs the question: why are black men only recognized for playing certain types of roles? These are inspirational stories, but the Academy should commend performances by black men who have not been beaten down. Instead of being considered for roles like Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Stanley Motss (Wag the Dog), or Rooster Cogburn (True Grit), black actors are pigeonholed into playing civil rights leaders, slaves, or criminals. Michael B. Jordan, the star of Fruitvale Station, recently spoke about his frustration with this trend, saying “I don’t want to play just the black guy in films. I want the scripts Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have time for. Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t available? Call me.”
So, how far have we come since Sidney? In terms of roles for black actors, some progress has been made. There were leading roles in films like Best Man Holiday, 12 Years a Slave, About Last Night, The Butler, 42, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Fruitvale Station, and no lack of think pieces written on the success of black-centric cinema. But the critical and box-office success achieved by these films did not translate into success this award season, a troubling but common trend as of late. In the six years between Denzel Washington’s momentous win in 2002 and Forrest Whitaker’s win in 2007, there were seven black men nominated for Best Actor, three of whom won. But since then, only three have been nominated, and unless Ejiofor beats out current favorite Matthew McConaughey, the drought of black Best Actor winners will continue into an eighth year.
The Academy has let progress slow, and it’s long past time to recognize the full range of talent Hollywood has to offer.
Featured image courtesy of http://goretro.blogspot.com/2010/12/go-retros-retro-hottie-of-month-sidney.html.
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