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The Gossip Reading Club: Issue Fourteen – The Oscars Have Always Been Racist

The Oscars were protested for their glaring lack of diversity in 1995. It wasn't the first or last time it would happen.

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Kayleigh Donaldson

Oct 08 2021

13 min read

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Welcome to another issue of the Gossip Reading Club. In my line of work, September through to February/March/April is generously categorized as awards season, a period of industry madness I am personal far too interested in. We’re currently seeing the main contenders for the 2022 Academy Awards line up via festival screenings and it won’t be long before the frontrunners make themselves known (please be good, Nightmare Alley!) Honestly, I could probably do an entire newsletter just on awards season gossip coverage since it’s an endlessly juicy source for the things we discuss here. For now, however, let’s look back on a key year that feels all too familiar in 2021.

People. “What's Wrong with This Picture?” March 18, 1996. Pam Lambert.


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On January 15th, 2015, entertainment journalists gathered at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills to hear the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announce the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards. Twitter also waited with baited breath. Of the twenty actors nominated in the four major categories, all of them were white. Four of the five Best Director nominees were white, with the exception being the ultimate victor, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. People quickly noted the near-total shutout of Selma, the critically acclaimed biographical drama directed by Ava DuVernay. Despite being one of the year's best-reviewed films, it received only two nominations. None for DuVernay or her actors, including David Oyelowo. #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag campaign started by April Reign, quickly began trending and soon the protests became impossible to ignore.

Since then, the Academy has done a lot of talking and made many promises about its plans to diversify its ranks. It wants to reflect the world at large, yet every year, we're reminded of how much Hollywood desperately clings to the status quo. Green Book wins over Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman. It took until this year for an Asian American performer to be nominated for Best Actor. No Black woman has ever been nominated for Best Director. Over 92 years, four Latinx women have been nominated for Best Actress.

None of this is new. Every now and then, one of the usual suspects of faux-outrage verbal vomit whines about how those SJWs are making a big deal out of nothing, as if these debates haven’t been ongoing since the origins of Hollywood. No, we didn’t “just decide” that Gone with the Wind is offensive. That film was picketed by the NAACP in 1939. So was The Birth of a Nation. There was industry outrage when Barbra Streisand didn’t get nominated for Best Director for Yentl. The basic tenets of #OscarsSoWhite have deep roots throughout the decades. 1996 is but one such example.

For their cover piece, titled "Hollywood Blackout", People crunched the numbers: Only one of the 166 nominees at the 68th Academy Awards was African American: Dianne Houston, nominated for Best Live Action Short. In 1996, mere 2.6 percent of the Writers Guild was African American, and only 2.3% of DGA membership was Black. Their investigation focused specifically on the Black population because, as they put it, there was a cultural misconception that Black actors and storytellers had broken through Hollywood's race ceiling, and the numbers clearly disproved that. It’s a fair enough thesis to center the issue of diversity at the Oscars on, although it’s obviously still deeply limiting. It does feel worth noting that this was the year where Sense and Sensibility got nominated for Best Picture but Ang Lee was not nominated for Best Director.

Many of the points made in the People piece feel dishearteningly familiar in 2021. The budget ceiling for Black-centered productions is "dramatically lower than for so-called mainstream projects." Black actors are told they're "not right" for projects, with Sheryl Lee Ralph sharing a story where a producer told her, "You’re obviously beautiful and talented, but what do I do with a beautiful black girl in a movie?" The upper echelons of industry power are described as a white man frathouse for the likes of David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, many of whom rub elbows with political forces like Bill Clinton. Damon Wayans shares a story of his sister Kim pitching "a Doris Day-type vehicle", only for a studio to say they wouldn't do it with her because it "wasn't black enough." Switch out a few names and frankly, you could probably see a report like this in the New York Times of this year.


Angela Bassett in the 1996 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair.


People put it best when they said that "Hollywood’s creations are the mirror in which Americans see themselves—and the current racially skewed reflection is dangerously distorted." That's never really been fully rectified, at least in mainstream American cinema intended for wide audiences. TV has made some incredible strides and film has, undeniably, taken a few steps forward. Yet it feels like there’s always something holding them back, particularly with the Academy’s way of business. Lulu Wang gets shut out for The Farewell. It takes until BlacKkKlansman for Spike Lee to receive a Best Director nomination and then they still ignored Da 5 Bloods.

As with today, there are always examples to the contrary of Hollywood’s racist default mode of business. For every smarmy voice declaring that Black actors don't perform well overseas, People points to a film like Bad Boys, starring "the lesser-known Will Smith and Martin Lawrence", which made $75 million overseas. Think of how many nonsense think-pieces we saw concern-trolling Black Panther before it broke multiple box office records, and how those limiting ideas remain in place despite that film’s major success. Rom-coms are seen as a perennial safe bet but when Waiting to Exhale gets greenlit, its budget is lower than the average for such films. Even the stars who have punched their way through to the A-List, like Samuel L. Jackson, are hindered by roadblocks. Jackson said at the time that “we're not colorless, but we’re above [being forced to audition]”, although he's still not seen as “right” for a romantic lead opposite a white actress. For Jackson, the “tunnel vision” of the industry is preventing other Black actors from getting the chance to shine. “There is an A-List, and if they can’t get us, they say, ‘Well, we’ll wait till we can.’ They’re not looking for the next us.”

It's a trap that's especially pernicious for Black women, for whom major roles are seldom written and 'color-blind casting' opportunities few and far between. I remember one interview where Halle Berry said that she was so proud to land a supporting role in the terrible live-action adaptation of The Flintstones because it was the first time she'd gotten a part initially written as white. So slim were the pickings. Hell, Berry’s an Oscar winner now – still the only woman of colour to win Best Actress – and it did depressingly little for her career, especially when compared to the likes of Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and so on.


Is this the best Oscar dress ever? Yes.


The problems continue down the pecking order. Black workers describe the difficulties they had getting their union cards and being pulled from doing the work necessary to acquire it once certain figures got wind of their presence. Sound mixer Russell Williams II, an Oscar winner who has worked on movies like Training Day and Field of Dreams, said he tried to board a truck on location to remove his audio equipment and was stopped by a security guard for seemingly no reason. Williams also draws attention to the barriers that prevent Black industry figures, even ones as celebrated as him, from getting into the Academy. It’s no wonder the nominations end up being so white.

The year of the 68th Academy Awards the big winner of the night was Braveheart, which took home Best Director and Best Picture. As a Scot, I have many feelings on that shite film, which I'll leave for another time. Whoopi Goldberg hosted the ceremony while Quincy Jones produced it. This was seen as “proof” by some a-holes that the Oscars couldn't possibly be racist. Peter Bart of Variety smugly claimed that these details "should give some clue that the Academy is hardly a bastion of racist sentiment." He, like many others in the press, took umbrage with the protests planned by the Rainbow Coalition and Reverend Jesse Jackson. They later decided that the Oscars weren't the right venue for such protest: "Why should the movie business be different from anything else in America? It's a problem that permeates everything in the country. Every facet of America discriminates." The Los Angeles Times called the non-protest an “epic tactical goof.” SNL parodied it with a guy in Blackface playing Jackson.

Morgan Freeman at one point is quoted in the People piece as saying, "I don’t think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They’re predicated completely on money." Capitalism and racism, however, are inseparable. Hollywood was built on racism. The first Black character ever seen in a motion picture was a white guy in blackface for a short version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Black and white cinematography was designed with white skin as its focus, something cinema has never fully moved on from. The Hays Code’s banning of “miscegenation” ensured that actors of colour would never be leading stars or have roles beyond tokens, and even then, there was a solid chance they’d be replaced by white actors in make-up: Everyone did some form of black- or yellowface in Hollywood, from Judy Garland to Katharine Hepburn to Laurence Olivier. Luise Rainer wins an Oscar for playing a Chinese farmer in The Good Earth while Anna May Wong wasn’t even considered for the role. Steven Spielberg has received more nominations for Best Director than all Black filmmakers put together. Colourism runs rampant in film and TV. We’re still beholden to smarmy think-pieces wondering if the failure of one film or one TV show will doom all stories with that marginalized group in them, with In the Heights being only the most recent example of white people claiming that there’s no money in mid-to-big-budget Latinx stories. Desi Arnaz is being played by a Hispanic actor in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, not, you know, a Latinx actor. The two are interchangeable in the eyes of Hollywood.


Always and forever, justice for Anna May Wong.


In 2002, when Halle Berry won her Oscar for Monster’s Ball, she said in her speech that the door had been opened for so many faceless women of colour who had been denied their chance to shine in Hollywood over the decades. On that same evening, Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day. When interviewed by The New York Times two days after the ceremony, Reuben Cannon, the first Black casting director for a major movie studio said, "I am thrilled about what took place last night. It is significant. But we should not mistake a moment for a movement. It’s a significant moment. Whether it’s a movement, only time will tell.” Has progress been made? Sure, but it’s been maddeningly incremental and often feels like a case of two steps forward, one step back. Black Panther makes history but it’s Green Book that wins Best Picture.

We know the Oscars are silly. We know they’re not an indicator of talent or merit, but we return to them year after year for a reason. The Academy is crap at acknowledging the rapidly changing landscape of film, but it is excellent for exposing how the industry views itself and the image it wishes to convey to the world. That’s why it’s so revealing when stories of slavery or civil rights from white perspectives win so many Oscars, or when The Blind Side gets a Best Picture nod, or when Driving Miss Daisy takes home the top prize in a year where Do the Right Thing gets zero nominations.

This year, as awards season rolls on, I can’t help but feel cynical about the upcoming campaigning and array of films that will be positioned as frontrunners. So far, the list is pretty white and male, from Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast to Pablo Larrain’s Spencer to my queen Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. We still have Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth, which has received stellar reviews, as well as Will Smith's turn in King Richard, which is a major Best Actor contender (and it's also weird that we finally get a film about the Williams sisters, two of the world's greatest athletes, but it's focused on their dad, right?) There's also Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, which is chock full of incredible Latinx talent (but also Ansel Elgort, an elephant in the room they'll soon need to deal with.) Rebecca Hall's adaptation of Passing, starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, is getting excellent write-ups. There are possibilities but they’re easily outnumbered by whiteness. And then there’s the whole pandemic thing and the ways that will inevitably impact future productions.

#OscarsSoWhite undoubtedly led to change, particularly within the Academy’s membership demographics, and it could be argued that we see that reflected in wins like the Parasite sweep or grand total of two women in Best Director in one year. Still, change is slow, slower than how the rest of the world operates. The fact that our conversations about this are near identical to ones over 25 years ago speaks volumes. So does the fact that five years later, People released an article titled “Hollywood Blackout: The Sequel.” 


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Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email at hello@kayleighdonaldson.com.

You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, Slashfilm, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. This past fortnight, I wrote about the legacy of "Blurred Lines", I offered some book recommendations, and I reviewed the Princess Diana musical on Netflix that is very much a real thing. I also offered my case for a Moneypenny movie over a female Bond one, and I explained my issue with the recent trend of rehabilitation movies for wronged women like The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The Gossip Reading Club is free to read and shall remain so. However, if you would like to donate a couple of dollars towards its upkeep, you can do so on my Ko-Fi page. It takes a lot of work to put these together and now I have to pay for the newsletter service (and write this stuff on a laptop that has crashed twice during the posting of this dang issue.) Thanks so much to everyone who has been so generous in recent weeks. I seriously appreciate it!

I'm really eager to hear from you, dear gossip readers, about topics you'd like to see covered in this newsletter. Is there a famous story or scandal or particular profile you'd like to see me look into? I am open to any and all ideas as long as the article is easily accessible. Enjoy your weekend!

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