Oscar’s not just a grouch; he’s also a racist. I’m not talking about Sesame Street‘s Oscar. He’s cool. In fact, he hangs out with black folks, including his best friends Gordon and Susan, lives in the hood, and is the author of a book partially entitled The Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch. Also, he hates Fox News, which he disdainfully and accurately refers to as Pox News. So he’s cool. Very cool.
But the same can’t be said about the Academy Award’s Oscar. That little bastard is no friend of African-Americans. I call him little because he’s only 13-and-a-half-inches tall. And I call him a bastard because his parents, namely the present-day Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, weren’t married (i.e., officially organized as they are today) when they hooked up at the Hotel Roosevelt and gave birth to the then-nameless offspring on May 16, 1929 in a secret (actually private) ceremony. By the way, nobody knows for sure how he even got the name Oscar. However, the prevailing theory is that when the Academy’s executive secretary first saw him in 1931, she said he reminded her of her “Uncle Oscar.” A reporter supposedly heard her and wrote the story. The rest, as they say, is history.
That 1929 birthday event was held to “honor outstanding achievements of the 1927-1929 film season.” And a few years later, the Oscar statuette began to be presented as an award “of merit for distinctive achievement.” But it wasn’t until a decade later that any black person did anything meritorious or distinctive in the motion picture industry—or at least that was the Academy’s position. Finally, in 1939, the multi-talented Hattie McDaniel became the first black person not only to win an Oscar, but the first to be nominated. Ms. McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for her starring role in Gone With the Wind, was not just a great film actress. She was, in addition, a remarkable stage actress, a skillful TV and radio performer, a melodious singer—she recorded with Paul Robeson—a prolific songwriter, and a key philanthropist to the African-American community. She also was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, and her father Henry fought in the Civil War as a member of the U.S. Colored Troops. Her life itself is worthy of an Oscar! But the Oscar she won wasn’t for the dignified person who she was. Instead, it was for her demeaning role as Mammy, an enslaved maid. The demeaning would have been even more flagrant if the NAACP hadn’t succeeded in forcing the director to delete the frequent use of the word “nigger” before the film was seen by the public.
Fast-forward nearly three quarters of a century later. Did things get better? Hell no. They got even worse in 2001 when the Academy awarded an Oscar for Best Actor to one of this country’s greatest actors of all time, Denzel Washington. He received it for his portrayal of the brutal, ruthless, thieving and lying Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day—but had been snubbed in 1992 despite his powerfully and eerily realistic transformation into Malcolm X, and in 1987 despite his just-as-powerful transformation into Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. Oh, I get it. A negative black thug is good for Hollywood and America, but a positive black man is bad. Well, things certainly must have improved for African-American actresses. Nope. They didn’t.
In fact, in 2001, they were just as stereotypically problematic for black women when the Academy decided that the Best Actress award should go to the otherwise masterful Halle Berry for her portrayal as Leticia Moore in Monster’s Ball. You mean to tell me that the first African-American actress in history to receive the Best Actress nod had to be an alcoholic, poverty-stricken, willing sex toy of a racist prison guard, spouse of an accused cop killer, and mother of a lazy and shiftless son? WTMF? Did the Academy sleep through the stellar performances of Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones in Carmen Jones in 1954; Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues in 1972; and Cicely Tyson as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder in 1972?
And what was up in 2009 with that Best Supporting Actress award given to Mo’Nique in Precious for her portrayal of Mary Lee Johnson, the vile, child-abusing, welfare-cheating mother of an illiterate, incest-victimized, HIV-positive, “dark-skinned” daughter? I could continue by going back to Oscar’s mistreatment of black men and asking why the magnificently refined Sidney Poitier won the 1963 Best Actor award for the balls-less, good-white-folks-helping Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field when he wasn’t even considered for the ballsy, racist-white-folks-slapping Mr. Tibbs in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. What about the exceptionally proficient James Earl Jones for his charismatic role as Jack Jefferson in 1970’s The Great White Hope? How about the captivating Don Cheadle for his emotionally riveting role as the Schindler’s List-type savior named Paul Rusesabagina in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda? And the accomplished Morgan Freeman for his compelling role as Nelson Mandela in 2009’s Invictus?
I know that some of you will say that I doth protest too much. I know you’ll say that I always play the race card. And I’d agree with you. The reason I play the race card is that America (and its original colonists) has consistently dealt from the very beginning from a race deck with marked cards. That’s why whites win nearly every hand or, in this case, nearly every film award. They win by almost always naming themselves as winners, but also by infrequently naming others (i.e., blacks) as winners. The “others” have to make themselves look bad or make whites look good in order to be recognized by the Academy. Where are the white street criminals, single mothers, deadbeat dads, welfare recipients, prostitutes, crack addicts, prison inmates, and high-school drop-outs in movies and on TV? After all, there are many more white ones than black ones in this country. I guess fact is stranger than fiction.
As of the 83rd Academy Awards presentation last year, blacks had been nominated 118 times and won 26. However, some of those winners should have been losers, and some of those 92 losers (as well as many qualified “non-nominees”) should have been winners. Let’s hope that things change for the cinematic and cultural better this year. Because if The Help wins anything for, at best, its racially condescending portrayal or, at worst, its racistly demeaning portrayal of African-American women (including the impressive, classically trained Viola Davis and the remarkable Octavia Spencer), I’m gonna portray the cool Oscar and toss that modern-day Mammy garbage into the trashcan.