Race Card: How the Academy Awards Bungled Race

Academy Awards

After the 83rd Academy Awards, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel quipped that the only African-American nominee at the Oscars was Black Swan. "Happy Black History Month," he added sardonically. Kimmel's far from the only one bemoaning the dearth of black Oscar nominees this year. Clearly, the producers of this year's Oscars recognized the omission as well and took measures to ensure the telecast at least featured entertainers of color.

Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and Halle Berry each appeared during the program. Freeman appeared first during a prerecorded spoof of Inception with Oscars co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Later, a confident Oprah presented the award for Best Documentary Feature. On the other hand, Hudson—who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007 for Dreamgirls—appeared much more nervous, tripping over her words as she announced the nominees for Best Original Song. Hudson may have been nervous because she was reportedly added late to the list of presenters, perhaps as a direct response to the New York Times and others calling this year's Academy Awards a "Hollywood whiteout." Then, there was Halle Berry, who's still popping up in gossip columns over her ugly custody battle with ex Gabriel Aubry. Berry gave a tribute to the late Lena Horne, the first black woman to sign with a major Hollywood studio, MGM.

I don't know who wrote the tribute to Horne—I doubt it was Berry—but I found it underwhelming, to say the least. That's because it sidestepped the issue of race. Berry discussed Horne in generalities, remarking how Horne paved the way for "us." By us, I'm assuming she meant people of color, but she never said this outright. And rather than discuss how the light-skinned Horne was encouraged to pass for non-black and how some hotels resisted accommodating her because she was African American, Berry vaguely remarked how America was a different place in Horne's heyday. Once again, I want to emphasize that I'm not faulting Berry for this, as I don't believe she wrote the tribute. I just wonder why whoever did seemed determined to tiptoe around the issue of race. Would it have been that radical to say that Hollywood, and the U.S. generally, in the early 20th century was fiercely racist and that Horne suffered as a result? Because she refused to play stereotypical roles such as maids, Horne often endured long dry spells in the film industry. But Horne did not passively wait for opportunities to open up for her. She marched on Washington, worked with the NAACP, and asked Attorney General Robert Kennedy to quickly strike down segregation laws so other people of color wouldn't endure what she had.

I know that there was a time limit on the tribute and that it would've been impossible to highlight all aspects of Horne's activism. I'm just disappointed that the tribute not only offered up a sanitized version of America but a sanitized version of Horne as well. Moreover, the long spells that Horne went without consistent work in Hollywood would have been a great segue into the elephant in the room during the ceremony—that some of the barriers Horne faced continue to provide obstacles for actors of color today. African Americans certainly aren't relegated to playing domestics anymore, but pickings generally remain slim for actors of color not named Berry or Washington or Smith. According to the New York Times, the nominees for Best Picture in 1940—the year Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar—featured more racial diversity than the 2011 nominees. While the Academy itself isn't responsible for this, certainly many of the Oscar winners and nominees who sat in the Kodak Theatre on Sunday have the power to make sure that the next few Academy Awards don't constitute "whiteouts."

In closing, I'd like to revisit Horne. Lately, I've been reading how history has sanitized Rosa Parks by characterizing her as a sweet, apolitical lady who just happened to be too tired to give up her bus seat one day. In reality, Parks was a dedicated social activist prior to her arrest. She joined the civil rights movement, in part, to end sexual violence against black women. I'd hate to see history sanitize Lena Horne in the same way. Unfortunately, that prospect seemed likely during last night's ceremonies.

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Thanks very much for this

Thanks very much for this informative post. I don't watch the Oscars anyway but I had heard about the "whiteout". It's so helpful to be reminded that the version typically told is "sanitized".

On the Lena Horne point,

On the Lena Horne point, you're too late -- it took me until college, and taking specifically African-American studies courses in college, to learn anything about Lena Horne other than her being a gorgeous early black actress who took less shit than some others, something like Sidney Poitier, who I also knew nothing about. And she did all this by being an awesome actor and making breaks, not by pushing anyone or engaging in social activism. Even Billie Holliday is treated this way most of the time, with kind of an unspecific garnish of tragedy.

agree

However, I think it had more to do with the time constraints of the Oscar broadcast, and how FEW writers were there in the credits. With any knowledge at all of African-American history? Probably not.

What annoys me so about the Oscars, in general, is the insistance of the behemoth that is ABC, to keep the broadcast as short as possible by denigrating the quality of the awards themselves. All ABC cares about are ratings and the Oscars should not be about ratings at all. The acceptance and tribute speeches should be as long as the award winners want them to be. EVERYONE involved with the winners should be acknowledged ... and, yes ... Lena Horne deserved a MUCH BETTER, more nuanced tribute than what she got. Nothing against Halle Berry ... but there is a behemoth at play here (ABC will be broadcasting the Oscars through 2020!) that needs to be taken to task when it comes to the Oscars. The Oscars must also feature teachable moments (those tribute features of Oscar history did them no justice) and ABC can really do better with them.

"You're Just Not Good Enough"

Nadra, I just discovered this great post after writing one of my own about race and gender in Hollywood -- really trying to get at the "you're not nominated for an Oscar because you're just not good enough" kind of argument: http://feminema.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/youre-just-not-good-enough-race....

Many thanks for your terrific piece -- I completely agree with you, and wish Horne could get the tribute she really deserves.