Black Hollywood Progress
Since 2002, African-Americans broke through to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Writer and Best Director awards. Since then, bigger budgets were approved to make “A List” movies written, starring, directed and co-produced by people of African descent. We reached the movie mountaintop at the 2014 Academy Awards — a black director won Best Picture for a slavery movie. Then despite critic-favorite movies such as Selma, Strait Outta Compton, Creed, and a number of great acting, writing and directing performances, progress stalled at the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards. After the white-out, Academy Award viewership dipped to an 8-year low. What next?
Recognition of black artistic excellence by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science (Oscar awards), Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe Awards) and major trade guild (Screen Actor, Director, Screenplay Writer, Producer) awards were for decades, tokenism. From 1939-1963, African-Americans only received nominations or secondary awards. After Sidney Poitier’s electrifying Best Actor Oscar win in 1964, somebody pulled the plug.
Richard Pryor proved that African-American comedians could lead a blockbuster movie in the 1970s. But Oscars are rarely awarded for comedies or musicals. Then from 1986-90, Spike Lee kicked open doors for black dramatic stories and talent. Spike received a well-deserved 1990 nomination for Do The Right Thing — a movie that would stand the test of time. Then something changed. Given his penchant for making Hollywood insiders feel uncomfortable with certain truths, Spike’s apex film achievement, Malcolm X, was snubbed in 1992. He was treated as a Hollywood outsider for many years afterwards. It left us wondering if Spike’s 1990 nomination was a “White Guilt” method to cleanse the soul.
The first major step forward in black dramatic talent being widely recognized took longer. Though Denzel Washington won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 2000, it barely registered in Hollywood because the Golden Globes were perceived as less significant at the time and few Americans watched the ceremony. The big break came in 2002, when the Screen Actors Guild presented Halle Berry the Best Actress award in early March 2002 for a drama movie. It was followed by Oscar awards for Best Actor to Denzel Washington, Best Actress to Halle Berry and Lifetime Achievement to Sidney Poitier in late March 2002.
The second major step forward piggy-backed on the 2002 awards. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, and Idris Elba headlined A List ($30-$50 million) drama movies. More drama movie projects featuring black writers and producers got financing. More African-Americans got starring roles in popular Sci-Fi, Action and Musical movies and TV programs. The huge popularity of those genres increases audience recognition of actors (i.e., Will Smith, Zoe Saldana, Samuel L. Jackson) for future casting decisions. Spike Lee, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Steve McQueen, Tyler Perry, F Gary Gray, Ryan Coogler, Tim Story, and Lee Daniels directed movies with each grossing well over $100 million in worldwide box office, video and broadcast revenue.
Though Angela Bassett, Viola Davis and Halle Berry struggle finding A List movie roles, like their middle age white female counterparts, they’ve landed solid Cable TV roles in between. Meanwhile, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard are killing it on TV and Ava Duvernay is finding her stride there as well.
Since 2002, Golden Globe and major trade guild voters have been more in line with movie critics and film festival judges, than stodgy old Oscar voters. In the latest two examples, note recognition of black talent at the 2015 and 2016 Golden Globe Nominations. Note the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Nominations. How could Oscar voters overlook such widely respected talent?
Despite a trend of nominations and awards between 2002-14, why did Oscar voters regress to the point of a “White-Out” at the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards? How could Oscar voters overlook Will Smith or Idris Elba for Best Actor nominations? How could Oscar voters nominate Anglo-American writers of Straight Outta Compton for Best Screenplay, but not nominate the movie, even though only 8 of 10 available movies were nominated for Best Picture?
The answer is simple. In 2012, The Los Angeles Times reported that Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male. Four years later, Oscar voters are 91% white and 76% male. Either most Oscar voters could not relate to excellent stories involving people of color or they used up their “White Guilt” votes on 12 Years A Slave and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexican, Best Director Oscar winner for 2 straight years).
Nevertheless, the 2015 and 2016 regression by Oscar voters is all the more surprising since Cheryl Boone Isaacs became the first African-American President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Paris Barclay became the first African-American to helm the Producers Guild of America in 2013. In February 2016, Channing Dungey became the first African-American president of ABC Entertainment Group. Spike Lee was given Honorary Oscar, presumably for Lifetime Achievement. For years, all four have influenced TV and movie studio execs to hire more women and people of color in 3-dimensional roles and in big budget projects.
Diversity population growing way faster than the Anglo-American population. In a world were Millennials have many reasons to not go to the cinema, more Cable TV and Studio movie talent is needed to serve Diversity markets starving to see their stories authentically represented on the big screen.
Thanks in part to Cheryl, Paris and Channing, more people of color are being attached to good TV and Movie studio projects. Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Terence Howard, Angela Bassett, Taraji P Henson, Jennifer Hudson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Octavia Spencer, Djimon Hounsou, Sanaa Lathan, Queen Latifah, Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Jeffrey Wright, Regina Hall, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, Carmen Ejogo, Taye Diggs, Gabrielle Union, Chadwick Boseman, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Meagan Good, Michael Ealy and others are appearing in fictional dramas, bio-pics and action-pics budgeted at $15-100M. Many of them rake in $60-$300M in box office revenue alone. There are more black writers, cinematographers, costume designers, sound editors, assistant directors and production assistants working movie & TV projects too.
That virtuous cycle has led to a larger pool of good movies produced, written, directed and acted by people of color and the probability of more Emmy, Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
Chris Rock shaming Oscar voters was only useful for the broadcast. The real power is that since Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the wheel, more AMPAS women and people of color are being invited to become Oscar voters. Based on her recent initiative approved by the AMPAS Board of Governors, Cheryl is not satisfied with the pace. This is a multi-year initiative to double diversity voter numbers by 2020. “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”
Despite declines in the 2016, the Oscars attracted 34 million viewers and Golden Globes attracted 19 million viewers. Given their promotional value, diverse Oscar and Golden Globe Nominations & Awards are important to the long term health of the industry.
Movie studio executives should take a clue from TV executives to solve this award nomination problem. They must green-light more movies featuring women and people of color for Golden Globe and Oscar voters to have a consistently large, high quality pool to evaluate. Golden Globe voters are clearly headed in the right direction. If AMPAS members help Cheryl achieve her goal by 2020, Oscar nominations will grow proportionately closer to emerging Diversity markets without sacrificing Oscar’s exclusive reputation for excellence. And Hollywood will make more money too!
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is fundraising for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures slated to open in late 2017.