The Oscars Are Racist

African-Americans have to play demeaning movie roles to get a glance from the Academy.

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.

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  • I hope Viola Davis wins this year and although I know this is another Maids’ role “The Help”, it’s a win-win in a white supremacy/racist society. Maybe next year “Tuskegee Airman “Red Tails” may get a shot at it. It’s 2012 and still with all our great stars and talented actors and actresses we will finally receive accolades for a motion picture that does not display sex, drugs and thugs.

  • mzceej1

    I completely agree with this article and I’ve been saying this for years. Let’s not forget 3-6 Mafia’s win for “It’s Hard Out Here for A Pimp”. I distinctly remember cringing while watching the back up dancers dressed like hookers strutting around the stage while the gold tooth gold chain wearing rappers proclaimed about the hardship of pimping. Worst representation at the Oscars ever.

  • felixible22

    I agree and disagree.

    I disagree with the theory that black people exclusively tend to win Oscars for playing people who are disenfranchised or despicable. What about Charlize Theron in “Monster”? Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”? Trying to capture the ugliest, most unlikable, unsympathetic aspects of the human condition in an industry where being loved and accepted is paramount is often admired regardless of race. It’s a running joke in Hollywood as a whole that you either “ugly” yourself up or play a handicapped character in order to advance.

    But it is true that many black actors are overlooked and not praised nearly enough. I think Adina Porter was snubbed during the Emmys and the Golden Globes for her role on “True Blood” while Anna Paquin was nominated for some reason. It’s part fame and familiarity as well as revenue or budget with these things…Avatar wasn’t actually a good movie but since it cost so much and was pretty people threw nominations at it. It’s not the most “fair” industry for virtually anyone involved.

    The industry has a lot of gay people in it but only recently have any of those roles made headway in the Oscars and it did start with Philadelphia (about HIV/AIDS). We can’t all have our cake and eat it too, just look at Latino actors as well….

  • i quit watching award shows years ago when blacks kept losing and for good roles and the only black people that won were a welfare mom (halle berry) a corrupt cop (denzel) and most recently precious. that is just how the world sees black people ask newt gingrich. violent, welfare, food stamp, drug dealer, ex con, name all the negative names you want. i always concidered any of these award shows as white people honoring their own, and you should be jealous becasue i went from working as a mcdonald drive thru window cashier, a and i won’t tell if you won’t tell, selling their goodies to the person to offer them a role, a drug addicted alcoholic teen agers. they toss in a black now and then to say i am not racist see we gave an award to halle, denzel, jamie foxx, so what are you complaining about, i hope it is not the hundreds we have given ourselves.

  • 1starmay

    i disagree with felixible22 when he/she states that white actors have portrayed “disenfranchised or despicable” yes, they have but you only gave two examples, even if it was more than two, what I think Michael tried to say was that black actors only get recognized for deplorable characters whereas white actors get recognized for ANY kind of character…..there, my friend is the difference.

  • cacaw88

    In the words of Morgan Freeman how do we get rid of racism? “stop talking about it,”… stop looking at people as black or white and just look at them as fellow humans :)

  • It’s easy, MAKE BETTER MOVIES!!! Stop making those poor me
    I live in the hood because the white man keeps me down so I have to act like a jackass.
    Black directors should just make better movies. It’s that easy.

  • smith3jn

    Although I get what your saying, I have to agree to disagree.

    The film industry 30-40 years ago is COMPLETELY different from today based on not only roles that were available for blacks, but also racism that was worse back then in society. Racism is still an issue today and will probably never completely fade. I also think there isn’t as many award winning roles for blacks in the industry. When black films such as Tyler Perry films (Madea Goes to Jail, Family Reunion, etc) are box office gold, ranking in almost $100 million per film, while other films that involve blacks and A+ acting aren’t “comical” or “satirical” aren’t pulling in nearly as half of that…. what do you think that says about our culture and what we view as great film??

    In 1954 when Dorothy Dandridge played Carmen Jones and was nominated for Best Actress it was HUGE. Yeah, she might not have won, and race was a factor, but she opened the door for SO MANY BLACK WOMEN AND MEN in Hollywood you have forgotten that! Dorothy’s nomination was BEFORE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR, it was BEFORE the Civil rights movement was even in full effect. Your sitting here complaining about her not winning, instead of applauding her for her courageous efforts on how she turned the tables in Hollywood for blacks! Can you imagine how she felt being nominated? Mind you, this was BEFORE the march that inspired millions, this was during the time they lynched people of color for even trying to go to auditions with whites. In my heart and in my eyes, Dorothy Dandridge was the true winner inside that category and out, and she didn’t need a stupid gold trophy to prove it…. even tho it bothers you.

  • Halle Berry played Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball, not Leticia Moore. :)

  • smith3jn

    And for the record,

    Morgan Freeman who is an amazing actor didn’t win in 1994 for his performance in Shawshank Redemption because he lost to Tom Hanks for his performance in Forrest Gump ( one of the highest grossing academy nominated films of all time)… so its not the acting or the academy, it was just a hard category at the time! And the reason Will Smith didn’t win for Ali is bc he lost to Denzel Washington for his performance in Training Day that year…once again hard category. Don Cheadle didn’t win for Hotel Rowanda because he lost to Jamie Foxx in Ray. You didnt say ANYTHING about Forrest Whitekar winning in 2006 for the Last King of Scotland, and lets not forget Cuba Gooding Jr winning best supporting actor in 2006 for Jerry McGuire ( FYI if you haven’t seen the movie…hes not playing a slave role. Hes actually an NFL player, tho you may call that race based too).

    I’m no dummy and obviously know whites are nominated and won statistically way more that blacks…but instead of taking punches at the academy lets focus on the amount of roles that are available for blacks and hope they only continue to grow. We have come along way since 1954 Dorthoy Dandridge….. lets hope to see progress amongst the film industry instead of sitting here playing “the black left out card”. We are stronger than that. Martin Luther King didn’t accomplish what he has by writing some silly article about how the academy is racist making silly comparisons to oscar the grouch… and Morgan Freeman and Jamie Fox sure as HELLLLLL didn’t win there awards by an article like this.

    I agree there is racism but this article is flawed. That’s all.

    • egypt thompson

      the role of cuba is gooding a niggry role of a man jumping around excited about money …. really that role was a pity oscar cause the knew they were bing watched ..and the militant role last king of scotland come on

  • felixible22

    But 1starmay, what about Jamie Foxx? Forrest Whitaker? Jennifer Hudson? Morgan Freeman? Whoopi Goldberg? They didn’t win for portraying stereotypical characters. It’s a bit of stretch to say black people *only* get recognized for roles that portray them as gangsters or welfare moms.

    Which makes me wonder…where is Jamie Foxx, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, or Morgan Freeman in this article?

    I think the industry in general has inclinations that are either racist or ignorant or both but I don’t know that the Oscars are what you should be pointing your finger at. What does it say about the INDUSTRY that only certain kinds of movies about black people are made? Remember, the Oscars reflect the most supported, financed films of that year but it doesn’t determine what films get made. Studios do that.

    Also, in terms of minorities, more films and actors with black characters have been recognized or won compared to films featuring Latinos, Asians, or Homosexuals. As bad as it is for black characters or movies with a predominantly black cast, other minorities have only a fraction of that recognition.

  • Mainstream black movies can be made but it’s up to
    black writers and directors to make them.

  • Did you just claim whites are not portrayed badly in films and on television? I guess you just did and I have to call b.s. You also claim whites never win for portrayed baddies. Where have you been? Many have won for portraying bad characters. MANY, MANY, MANY! Denzel won because he was outstanding. Must Denzel never play a villain because you believe he’s the wrong skin color? Should the Oscars not give him the award because you should never give a black man an award for playing a great villain? Only whites should win for playing villains. Do you not see the irony? Mo’Nique proved she can act. Should they keep it because she’s not white? Denzel has TWO Oscars. I have never seen “Glory” (shocking, I know) but he plays a solider in that film. Neither Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, J-Hud, Cuba or Whoopi portrayed thugs. Funny, you didn’t mention them. Yes, Hattie won for playing a maid. But is that really shocking considering the time she was in? Do blacks have a hard time in Hollywood? Yes. But this article is phony.

  • 26 for 118 is 22%. Sounds about right. Not all you mention is racist although some is.

    Denzel won because of the “hey he’s overdue” factor. Paul Newman didn’t win for The

    Verdict but later for a lesser effort. Hitchcock finally won a Lifetime Achievement but

    never a Director award. This is the second time I’ve heard Halle Berry demonized for

    Monster’s Ball. It’s unfair- actors like to play failed characters even villains. The Oscars

    are a mix of quality and the whole soap opera atmosphere of Hollywood. The Oscars

    the Emmys the Grammys alot of great stuff gets overlooked.

  • phal0101

    If Coard is so upset about racism he can do his part by looking in the mirror. He’s not going to see a white man but never the less it just could be a racist staring back.

  • interesting that some comments say that the solution is just to make better films but guess what …. better films have been made and they do not get the funding necessary because the industry does not value those films or think they can make money out of it…. we have talent but things are more complex folks. racism is systematic there is a whole lot of that goes into executing a movie besides someone writing a good story about blacks that isn’t what some would say is in the style of “poor me” ….. check yourselves people…. racism is not an overly simplistic thing… its systemic and insidious part of our culture

  • easiersaid1

    I agree with Sonsiris and hope that previous commentors will consider watching: tonight on PBS at 9pm. For every action, there is a reaction.

  • rubbermammy1

    Dude, You have issues. Poor me …Waaaaah, we didn’t win enough Oscars, Waaaah we don’t get the best roles, Waaaah . Keep on riding the racism gravy train. It’s all the white man’s fault

  • I have never seen Denzel play in any of the movies you have listed however, I have seen Malcolm X, which is one of my favorite movies to watch. I have always wondered why he did not get an oscar for that role not only because it was such a moving and deep piece but he played extreamely well in the movie. I mean man! We all know that had to be a difficult role to play, but to play it and execute it the way Denzel did. An Oscar had his name on it. As far as Hollie, woo! Jada Kiss could not have said it better ” why a white man had to pop her to get an oscar”. Hollie played in so many other movies that she could have gotten an osar for such as “Loosing Isaiah” , one of my favorite movies as well. Shit to be very ohnest i would have rather for her to have gotten one for playing the crack head in” New Jack City”

    • Sarah Baker

      I cant believe black pple even show up I wouldn’t bother not until they make the Oscors fair….

  • The hell with “oscars” ….Blacks an all other people of color ; should live there lives like, the
    oscar awards don’t even exsist !!! Its just white people standing around worshiping each other ….in an effort to maintain dominance…N.B.B.S. !

  • richiewere


  • Avery Bart

    Don Cheadle lost to Jamie Foxx.

  • wguy

    Good. F black people!

  • John

    “….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.
    This one statement defines real life. It seems to me that the Blacks are being treated as equals.