Oscar: Black Directors and Black-Themed Movies at the Oscars

Essay written in February 2015

Black Directors

Not a single black director is among this year’s Best Directors nominees. Not even Eva DuVernay, whose terrific drama, Selma, is nominated for Best Picture.

So much for progress, and history moving toward a more ethnically and culturally diverse future.

In the Oscar’s eighty-eight year history, only two black filmmakers have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar.

Steve McQueen, the gifted black British director (“Hunger,” “Shame”) was nominated last year for 12 Years a Slave, which won the Best Picture Oscar.

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To date, only several African American to have received a directing nomination, including John Singleton, for the 1991 urban crime drama, Boyz N’ the Hood, and Spike Lee, for BlacKkKmans.

Spike Lee

Spike Lee, the dean of contemporary African American filmmakers, has never been nominated for Best Director, despite impressive achievements in such timely films as Do the Right Thing, and the epic biopicture, Malcolm X, both of which aroused controversy due to their inflammatory subject matter.

In 1997, Lee’s documentary feature, 4 Little Girls, was nominated, but once again the prize went to a Holocaust documentary, The Long Way Home.

In order to compensate Lee for this lack, the Academy decided to bestow upon Lee an Honorary Oscar.

In 2018, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman received Best Picture and Best Director nomination, and Lee finally won a competitive Oscar, for Best Screenplay.

Denzel Washington: Two-Time Oscar Winner

The very talented Danzel Washingon has won two Oscars, Supporting Actor for Glory and Best Actor for Training Day, but both movies were helmed by white directors.

Black-Themed Movies

Before Spike Lee, most black-themed and all-black cast pictures were directed by white filmmakers, including King Vidor’s 1929 Hallellujah (for which he received Best Director nomination), Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 feature debut, Cabin in the Sky, starring Lena Horne, and others.

The all-black Carmen Jones (1954), inspired by Bizet’s famous opera, was also brought to the screen by a white filmmaker, Otto Preminger. In this reworking, a sexy black factory worker and a whore (Dorothy Dandridge) elopes with a soldier named Joe (Harry Belfanote) evading law. Carmen is strangled by Joe after deserting him for a prizefighter.

Dorothy Dandridge

Black-themed movies, whether helmed by white or black artists, have seldom won recognition for their filmmakers, though the films themselves have been nominated. Spielberg’s The Color Purple, adapted to the screen from Alice Walker’s best-selling novel, is one of the greatest losers in the Oscar annals. Spielberg, who earlier had won the Directors Guild Award, failed to receive a Best Director citation, but

 

Color Purple

the_color_purple_6_goldbergThe Color Purple received a record of eleven nominations. yet when it came to the actual awards, the film lost out in each and every category; the big winner that year was Out of Africa.

The Color Purple was certainly not one of Spielberg’s great pictures. What was missing from the movie was the unique voice of its protagonist Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), which gave the book such distinction. Spielberg turned an intimate and complex tale with strong lesbian overtones into what scholar Donald Bogle described as “a Disneyesque Victorian melodrama full of ‘big’ moments and simplified characters.” For Bogle, it became “a family film that soft-pedaled its lesbian theme.”

Even white directors of decent black-themed pictures have been snubbed by the Academy. Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Oscar nominee, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, opened to mixed reviews. For the harsher critics, it was “pure 1949 claptrap done up in 1940s high-gloss MGM style. By concentrating on nice decent people entangled in personal heartaches, director Kramer diverted the audience from any real issue.”

Guess Who’s Coming’s major competitor was another black-themed film, In the Heat of the Night. The film won the 1967 Best Picture, but the directing Oscar that year went to Mike Nichols for The Graduate rather than Norman Jewison.

And while Rod Steiger won the Best Actor Award, his equally talented partner in the film, Sidney Poitier, did not.

 A Soldier’s Story

In 1984, A Soldier’s Story was nominated for Best Picture, but helmer Jewison again failed to receive a directing nod. The Academy finally compensated Jewison, who never won a legit Oscar despite three nominations (the other two were for Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck) with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in 1999.

The Help

Cut to 2011 and the immense commercial success of the ensemble-driven film, “The Help,” which, of course, is directed by a white filmmaker.  Even so, “The Help” has garnered major Oscar nominatiosn, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Soencer).

Last Sunday, the Screen Actors Guild honored “The Help” with its “Best Ensemble” kudo (the closest they have to Best Picture, Viola Davis in the lead, and Octavia Spencer in the supporting league.

The film brought a well deserved Supporting Actress Oscar to Octavia Spencer, who competed in this category with Jessica Chastain, nominated for the same film.

Two movies last year showed healthy signsof progress–slow progress, I might add: The Butler, which was no nominated, and 12 Years a Slave, which was nominated and then actually won Best Picture.