When we first started looking at the 2014 Oscar race it appeared it might be a breakout year for black actors with the Academy. We're not only talking about Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o as Oscar hopefuls for 12 Years a Slave, but The Butler stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo as well as Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer appeared to be strong candidates. There were even some ever-so-brief moments of consideration for Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond in Blue Caprice, a film that was eventually an afterthought amidst the Oscar glut.
As it turned out, three black actors heard their names nominated by the Academy this year. Along with Ejiofor and Nyong'o, Barkhad Abdi was nominated for his work in Captain Phillips. That said, it's interesting to me how race and the Oscars is still a topic of conversation almost 50 years since Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win Best Actor on April 13, 1964. I got to thinking about his lately not only because of the the names I listed above, but because I recently finished reading Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution" in which Harris describes Poitier's win as follows:
We all have some measure of responsibility in this conversation and while I mention several roles performed by black actors stood out this year I think it's important to note how all of the roles mentioned above had to be played by black actors. Of course, such is often the case with Oscar contenders as true life stories are frequently the center of attention as only seven of the 20 acting nominees this year were, in some way, based on or inspired by a true story.
I know one of these days the conversation will no longer be something people think of, but considering Poitier's Oscar win came 50 years ago and we're still having the conversation there's no telling just how soon it will go away. On top of that, the conversation has actually deepened further as it's not only black actors we should be talking about, but actors of all races, not to mention the role of the female director in Hollywood and so on...
As for Poitier's win, I highly recommend you check out Harris' book for more on not only his Oscar win, but his journey before, during and after the making of In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the other five films competing for Best Picture in 1968, and just below is a look at that night in 1964 when Poitier accepted his award.