Oscar 2006: Actors of Color–Progress, Myth and Reality

Is Oscar Still a White Man’s Club?

Who will win this year’s Best White Actor
Protesters, Oscar Show, 1999

This year, the Academy’s Acting Branch was praised for its global orientation, for nominating not only American actors of color, such as Will Smith, Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, but also actors of foreign nationalities, such as Adriana Barraza from Mexico and Rinko Kikuchi from Japan, both for “Babel.”

Not included here is the British constituency, which has always been treated favorably by the Academy.

Updating my Oscar study, which began in 1986, with the publication of the first edition of And the Winner Is: History and Politics of the Academy Awards (the book in its tenth edition is now titled All About Oscar). Here is a more current report that includes this year’s voting results.

Black Actors

In the Academy’s entire history, only 12 performances have won the Oscar, five in the lead and seven in the supporting category. Denzel Washington is the only black actor to have won two Oscars.

It would have been 13 if Eddie Murphy had won Supporting Actor Oscar for “Dreamgirls,” as was predicted by many Oscar gurus (including myself). But in one of several upsets tonight, vet Alan Arkin won the Oscar in that category for “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The winning performers are:

Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind (1939)
Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field (1963)
Lou Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Denzel Washington, Glory (1988)
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire (1996)
Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001)
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001)
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004)
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006)
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was the first and only black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar until 2001, when Denzel Washington joined the Best Actor ranks. A veteran of 50 years of cinema, Poitier has carried the burden of the turbulent and contradictory history of blacks in American film. After winning the 1963 Best Actor for Lilies of the Field, Poitier’s career soared to undreamed of heights with three pictures: To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night.

When director Norman Jewison approached Poitier to star in the racially charged drama In the Heat of the Night, the actor said he would do it on one condition, that he would not have to travel south of the Mason-Dixie Line. Jewison agreed to shoot the film in Indiana rather than Mississippi where it is set. “Sideny represented such an important image in In the Heat of the Night, Jewison told the Hollywood Reporter, “and he gave the character such a sense of dignity and strength and pride. I was worried about audience reaction to this very intense black-white relationship, but of course it was well-received.” With the Civil Rights movement in full swing and the country’s big cities burning with racial hatred, Poitier gracefully led the charge in smashing the color barriers of mainstream culture.

At 75, Poitier received the Honorary Oscar “for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the motion picture industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world. President Frank Pierson held that “when the Academy honors Sidney Poitier, it honors itself even more.”

Oscar Host Whoopi Goldberg introduced Poitier as a presenter in the 1996 show, as the man who “made a lot of other actors possible, including myself.” She did not exaggerate. Poitier has survived, as Bogle observed “through all the vicissitudes, the uphill battles, the change in public tastes and outlooks, the demands of audiences, black and white.”

For his survival and accomplishments against all odds, the Academy bestowed on Poitier an Honorary Oscar at the 2002 ceremonies. It was most appropriate that Poitier was presented with his second Oscar by Denzel Washington, who, a few minutes later, would make history by winning the Best Actor for “Training Day.”

Black Nominees

Poitier, Washington, and Forest Whitaker comprise a small percentage of the Best Actor winners. The percentage of African American Best Actor nominees is slightly higher.

These actors are

James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope (1970)
Paul Winfield, Sounder (1972)
Dexter Gordon, Round’ Midnight (1986)
Morgan Freeman, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Denzel Washington, Malcolm X (1992), The Hurricane (1999), and Training Day (2001)
Lawrence Fishburn, What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
Will Smith, Ali (2001)
Will Smith, Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Supporting Actors

It took 33 years after the creation of the supporting acting categories for the first black performer to be nominated in that league, Rupert Crosse for The Reivers in 1969. Four black actors have won Supporting Oscars, all in the past twenty years:

Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Denzel Washington, Glory (1989)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire (1996)
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004)

The black supporting actor nominees amount to a small percentage of all supporting nominees. They are:

Rupert Crosse, The Reivers (1969)
Howard E. Rollins, Ragtime (1981)
Adolph Caesar, A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Morgan Freeman, Street Smart (1989)
Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game (1992)
Samuel Jackson, Pulp Fiction (1994)
Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile (1999).
Djimon Honsou, In America (2003)
Djimon Honsou, Blood Diamond (2006)
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls (2006)

Jaye Davidson, born in California but reared in England, was working as a fashion assistant when director Neil Jordan spotted him for the pivotal role in his psycho-political mystery, The Crying Game. The focus of the film’s shocking revelations, Davidson plays the transsexual lover of a British soldier-hostage (Forrest Whitaker) and then the lover of the Irish terrorist (Stephen Rae).

More recently, African model-turned-actor Djimon Honsou made a splash with two Oscar nominations in three years!