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 Award — a black director won the Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years A Slave. Then, despite critic-favorite movies such as Selma, Strait Outta Compton, Creed, and many 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.
In 2017, progress got back on track. There was more recognition of black artistic excellence by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science (AMPAS), Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe Awards) and major trade guild (Screen Actor, Director, Screenplay Writer, Producer) awards. To fully appreciate that progress, its good to take a short look back.
After Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, it was tough sledding for black dramatic actors for critical acclaim and box office success. Then 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. 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 and he was treated as a Hollywood outsider for many years afterwards. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X was also passed over for the Oscar, but his did not feel like a snub.
The next step forward in black dramatic talent being widely recognized took longer. Though Denzel Washington won a Golden Globe Best Actor for the Hurricane 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.
From 2002 onwards, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, and Idris Elba headlined many “A List” 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 such as 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 that grossed well over $100 million in worldwide box office, video and broadcast revenue, while costing a fraction of there gross 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 Cable TV roles in between. Meanwhile, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard and Ava Duvernay are killing it on TV.
Since 2002, Golden Globe and movie 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.
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 an 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 is growing way faster than the Anglo-American population. In a world were more Diverse Millennials have many reasons to not go to the cinema, more movie talent is needed to serve diversity markets starving to see their stories authentically represented with high production value.
Thanks in part to Spike, 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, Naomie Harris 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. We’ve seen more Black Hollywood Progress from 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 becoming 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.
2017 is off to a great start. We’ve seen another brother (Barry Jenkins) direct the Best Picture, winning an Oscar for Moonlight. Marharshala Ali won Best Supporting Actor and Viola Davis won the Best Suporting Actress Oscar. Hidden Figures, Loving and Fences were also nominated for Best Picture.
There were set backs too. Denzel Washington gave his second career-defining performance in the movie version of Fences. It was the same role he won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Actor and this time earned his first Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) award for Best Actor. In 19 of 22 previous years since the SAG awards began, the SAG Best Actor award has matched the Oscar Best Actor winner. There was no “make-good” candidate to award the Oscar for Best Actor after getting passed over many years, like Al Pacino receiving Best Actor in 1993. Since Al Pacino had been nominated for Best Actor 6 times before without winning, everyone understood Pacino for winning in his 7th Oscar nomination for Scent of A Woman, which was not among his career-defining performances. Otherwise, Denzel Washington would won in 1993 for his first career-defining performance in Malcolm X.
Fast forward to 2017. Comparing Denzel Washington’s performance in Fences vs. Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester By The Sea, who received the Best Actor Oscar, it is perfectly clear that Denzel was jobbed! We should not be surprised.
Manchester By The Sea was heavily promoted since its January 2016 release at Sundance Film Festival, while Fences was not marketed until November for its December 15, 2016 release date. By November, most Academy (and Golden Globe) voters had already decided without viewing Fences, giving Casey Affleck the nod. Though Fences was under-marketed, Tony award and 2500 SAG award voters are very diverse and younger, while academy voters are overwhelmingly older white males. Another factor is most of SAG’s 2500 voters overlap with the 6000+ AMPAS voters and, most Academy voters are not actors. As a professional courtesy, most actors withheld judgment to see the actor-driven movie adapted from a Tony Award-winning play, Fences.
Make no mistake, Manchester By The Sea is a fine movie and Casey Affleck is a fine young actor. But at the end of the day, most older white, non-actor male Academy voters in 2017 could not relate to Fences or the character Denzel played. If it were 2020, Denzel likely would have won.
So why did Viola win from Fences? Viola built her outstanding career and Hollywood relationships since 1992. She was the first black woman to earn three Academy nominations and five Golden Globe nominations. Viola started winning big awards in 2015. Being a close friend of Meryl Streep didn’t hurt. By early 2016, Hollywood media uniformly hinted that Viola Davis had “paid her dues” to justify higher recognition. Though she gave the same career-defining role & scope that earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress, when the movie studio downgraded her nomination to Best Supporting Actress, it made her the only overwhelming favorite to an Oscar for acting.
In other bad news, Cheryl Boone Isaacs will no longer serve an official capacity at the Academy. She “terms out” of her President position and resigned from the AMPAS Board of Governors, in part due to the Best Picture Envelope fiasco managed by the award show’s producer. The struggle continues.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs launched fundraising for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures slated to open in late 2018.