Oscar Directors: Daniels, Lee, Only Second Black Director to Be Oscar Nominated

Black Directors
 
Lee Daniels is only the second black filmmaker in 82 years of the Oscars to be nominated for the Best Director award. 
So much for progress–or history moving forward.   The fact that he is openly gay makes his achievement all the more significant.
 
Prior to Daniels, the only African American to have received a directing nomination was John Singleton, for the urban crime drama, “Boyz ‘N the Hood,” almost two decades ago.  Nonetheless, “Boys N’ the Hood” didn’t receive Best Picture or acting nominations—unlike “Precious.”
 
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” (1989), still his best work, 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.
           
Black-Themed Movies
 
Nominating “Precious” for Best Picture and other major awards, such as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, is also significant.
 
Before Spike Lee, most black-themed 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 Ethel Waters, and others.
 
The all-black cast musical “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.
 
The Color Purple or Color White
 
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 “The 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” 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. 
 
In 1984, “A Soldier’s Story” was nominated for Best Picture, but helmer Norman 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 nods were for “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Moonstruck”) with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in 1999.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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