50 Years Later, How Much Has Changed?

sidney-poitier-oscarWhen 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.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Beautifulm/ Beautifulm

    I honestly think that White women and to a lessor extent Black men have more opportunities than any other minority group in Hollywood. Asian Americans, Women of Color, Gays, etc still have a hard time getting lead roles. Look at Lupita, how many new roles were offered to her vs. Margot Robbie (not even nominated).

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/ghislaine/ ghislaine

    I read Mark Harris' book last year and really liked it. He writes so well, and seems thoughtful and fair minded. I found the sections about Sidney Poitier to be extremely interesting as well.

    Poitier certainly had to carry a lot of weight and withstand all kinds of criticism from all kinds of people. Most of the movies I've seen of his I saw as a kid, and I found him very accessible to a child's point of view. He seemed honest and straightforward and real, the kind of adult I wanted to grow up to be.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RonOnealFresh/ Ron Oneal Fresh

    I think it's important to note how all of the roles mentioned above had to be played by black actors.
    I think this is the main problem, If the film isn't about a historical person of the minority or about an issue that's exclusive to minorities Hollywood will white wash it. The Impossible, a film from a couple years ago about a family trying to survive in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. The director of the film is Hispanic, real life family, Hispanic — So you know who are the natural no-brainier picks to star in this film? Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Hollywood and the financiers of the films will forever hide behind demographics as the rationale behind keeping cinema as a white male club, exceptions to only Slave, Civil Rights movies that can't be white washed.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/deerhunter/ deerhunter

    people make it a discussion because it is a talking point, that's all. Listen, The Butler was shut out because it's not that good of a film. Oscars award excellence, not mediocrity. Enough said.
    2013 was a very good year for movies, and is highly competitive. Even Tom Hanks was shut out of the Lead Actor race. Do we make news of that? of course not. Let's put the double standards aside.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Beautifulm/ Beautifulm

      I guess the Reader was high quality as was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both got worse reviews than The Butler. The Academy is known for nominating mediocrity.lol

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    That's a fantastic excerpt. If you want to look on the positive side at what has changed, I would point to the fact that southern theatres had refused to book Lilies of the Field before Poitier's win. I technically live in the south (a fact I kind of hate), just outside of Richmond, VA. But before anyone goes all "capital of the confederacy!" on me, I think Virginia is clearly the second most progressive of the historically southern states, after Maryland (maybe Florida has an argument?). And Richmond is a solidly left-sided city, though the suburbs tend to be more conservative. So yeah, 12 Years a Slave seems to have played very well here; it opened on Nov. 1 and has played here continuously ever since. That wouldn't have happened in 1964. I can't speak for the more deeply southern states, say Louisiana where the bulk of the film apparently takes place (I haven't read the book and McQueen deliberately didn't reveal where Soloman was taken to keep the audience in his perspective, but I think I remember reading it was Louisiana). But my hopeful guess would be that theatres didn't refuse to book the film, except possibly in more rural areas (which likely rarely if ever book art house films anyway). So from that perspective, yes things have changed.

    But then you look at the other side. Remember how big a deal it was, in 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won lead acting Oscars? Washington was the second black man to win the lead prize; Berry was the first black woman. And as I recall, nothing race-wise was said about Jamie Foxx or Forest Whitaker when they won, which to me seems like a good thing; their race was no longer a story. But no black woman has been able to repeat Halle Berry's accomplishment and if you look over the course of Oscar history there's no question that it's been overwhelmingly white winners. I'm frankly not interested in getting into a vitriol-spewing political argument as to why that is, so I'll just leave those facts (of which everyone is aware) as they are.

    But my biggest overall takeaway specifically regarding 12 Years a Slave is this: I think there's a perception in Hollywood that by giving the film Best Picture, they're patting themselves on the back, as if to say "Look how progressive we are!" That's not to say that I think they're unfairly inflating the film's quality; I'm clearly on the record as an ardent champion of the film and I believe it's by far the best film of the year and frankly in terms of sheer cinematic artistic merit, one of the better films I've ever seen. And I think there are many in the Academy who may have the same opinion. But I also think the self-congratulatory aspect is there, since really all awards are about is Hollywood telling itself how good it is (the ultimate in cinematic masturbation). But take a look at who Hollywood is apparently prepared to award for this film: five producers, four of whom are white, the other of whom is the film's black director. Unless there is a shocking upset, they're not prepared to award him for his direction. I have a strong feeling that Gravity may end up winning Best Picture, but if in fact 12 Years a Slave does win and Cuaron wins as expected, there would be back-to-back Picture / Director splits for the first time in sixty years, which is noteworthy in terms of the rarity of that occurrence. They're also possibly prepared to award Lupito Nyong'o and John Ridley, but that's it in terms of major awards (and personally those are the only awards I have it predicted to win overall). And I know people will make arguments that race has nothing to do with it, that they really believe McConaughey and Cuaron deserve to win (for what it's worth no one is talking about Cuaron's race, but again I'm not interested in getting into those kind of politics). Personally I believe that McQueen and Ejiofor deserve to win in their respective categories and I don't think the competition is particularly close for either (in terms of nominees that is; I actually think Joaquin Phoenix's performance in Her is competitive with Ejiofor's). But I would simply point back to Oscar history and pretty much just leave the argument there. Can you prove there are racial issues involved? Probably not. But given the Academy's history, I think it must be acknowledged. As far as the conversation regarding women gays, and other races in Hollywood, I think there is certainly room to have many discussions on those topics and I don't wish to be insensitive to those issues, but given that the topic of this post is primarily focused on black Hollywood that's where I've focused my thoughts.

    One final point: I will engage in civil discussion on this topic, but I will not engage in political arguments. I believe I have stated facts and offered some opinion as to why those facts are the way they are.