Oscar 2011: Black Actors and Directors in Academy's History

Part One of Three Articles

If the great Viola Davis is nominated for the lead Oscar for her work in “The Help,” she would become only the eighth black woman to have scored that achievement in the Best Actress Oscar category in 82 years!

Black Directors

Not a single black director is a frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race. So much for progress, and history moving forward. In the Oscar’s seventy-seven year history, the only African American to have received a directing nomination is John Singleton, for the 1991 urban crime drama, Boyz N’ the Hood.

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.

Danzel Washingon has won two Oscars, Supporting 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, 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.

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’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. 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.