The Oscars Have Always Been Too White—Here’s How Things Are Finally Changing For The Better

-By Zack Sigel

On February 29th, 1940, the 12th Academy Awards were held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel. The winners had been previously leaked, so there was little surprise when Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The previous winner, Fay Bainter, began her announcement by saying, “This is more than an occasion. It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements.” Bainter may not have known this, but McDaniel almost never made it to the “occasion.” The Cocoanaut Grove enforced a no-blacks policy and required the intervention of David O. Selznick to get his star past the gate, where in compromise she was seated against a far wall with her agent and a friend. In her acceptance speech she gratefully thanked the Academy and hoped to continue to be a “credit to her race.”

McDaniel’s sad and unnecessary reassurance seems antiquated today, an insidious whisper from a time of institutionalized hatred. Brown v. Board was still 14 years away. When Selznick released his movie in the South, he was compelled to erase all the black faces from its advertising. It would be 10 years before another African-American was nominated for an Oscar, and another 14, until 1963, when Sidney Poitier became the second African-American to win one. McDaniel would go on to play some variation on the “mammy” role in over 70 films.

The Academy Awards are beginning to look a lot like Gone with the Wind’s redacted movie posters. For two years in a row, not a single African-American was nominated for any of the acting or directing categories. Nobody has even been able to make the claim that they lacked viable options, so the excuse has been that the options presented simply weren’t talented enough. A hashtag was quickly devised—#OscarsSoWhite—and stars like Idris Elba and Will Smith threatened to boycott the ceremony. Humiliating as it must’ve been for Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, who is black, the solution she devised at least allowed her to save face. Over the next four years, she would phase out members who hadn’t contributed to the movie business in the hopes of making room for more people of color.

The Academy isn’t racist—it gave Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, after all, and even the award to Crash in 2005 was an embarrassing road paved with only good intentions. There’s a reason the conservative complaint about “Hollywood liberals” is such an effective slur. When it wants to, Hollywood is capable of producing powerful films about race and sufficiently acknowledging them for achievement. The Academy tilts to the left, but perhaps in the way Hillary Clinton taking $225,000 per speech to flatter Goldman Sachs is considered liberal, and less so like Bernie Sanders marching on Washington. But it’s also not Donald Trump or either of the two front-running Latino candidates arguing over who can keep Latinos out better.

The least helpful take on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that didn’t come from an actual white supremacist or Republican demagogue has to have been that offered by The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood reporter assigned to the piece, Scott Feinberg, wrote that the exclusion of black actors from any of the best or best-supporting actor categories or in those for best picture and best director wasn’t proof of racism but of the superior talent who overcrowded them. Worse, he mentions the films with predominantly black casts that were his favorites (such as Straight Outta Compton) but concedes that the Academy probably knows best, so he’s at least aware that there are a great number of critics, including a whole National Society of them, who disagree. Michael B. Jordan was the clear choice of the latter institution and numerous others; Bryan Cranston and Michael Fassbender’s names didn’t even come up. If Trumbo and Steve Jobs bombed hideously and Creed was a box office success, in what sense do the Academy Awards represent consensus? That’s hardly democratic, but maybe it’s not supposed to be. With producers allowed to vote for their own films, the exclusion of actors and directors of color starts to appear like an Oscar season as protracted ad campaign for foundering losers.

It is hardly a knock on Feinberg to say that he misses the point. Putting aside that the films based on real people had some measure of responsibility to get the race of their characters “right”, would it have been too unbelievable that a black man gets stuck on Mars instead of Matt Damon? (Was The Knick’s hilarious and cool André Holland not available? Casting directors, call your office.) Until the directors and producers who comprise the Academy’s members can envision an Asian or Latino or African-American woman as the woman trapped in the eponymous room, the Oscars can hardly be called meritocratic. That’s not just a failure of the imagination; it’s something heavier. It looks like Mo’Nique winning for playing a drug-addicted single mother or Lupita N’yongo winning for playing a slave. It’s Octavia Spencer winning for playing a maid instead of her much-lauded performance in Fruitvale Station, another film showered with nominations and awards from nearly every festival or ceremony except the Academy.

That the Academy is making these small nods toward progress now is not an accident. Lost in the discussion of #OscarsSoWhite—or, perhaps, implicit in it—is that the sound we’re hearing of marginalized voices began with protests against a different kind of indifference. Before George Zimmerman went to trial and won for the killing of Trayvon Martin, there was the question of whether he’d be prosecuted at all because it was taken for granted that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. Protests, on the ground and online, thought otherwise. Martin’s death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement that has placed intense scrutiny on racism at the institutional level, and its pressure on officials to prosecute police shootings has seen measurable change. Laquan McDonald’s case would have been at the mercy of the Chicago police department and Rahm Emanuel had it not been for the videos and subsequent protests. We never would’ve heard about the dozens of women raped and silenced by Daniel Holtzclaw.

When we remain convinced by the line that actors and directors of color simply didn’t deserve it this year, we are hearing the same cliche offered by police apologetics about the shootings. Maybe next time. But it should not be easier to believe that no black or Asian or Latino people deserved the nomination. Nor should it be easier to believe that an unarmed black child with his eye on college would stalk and attack a large man with a 9mm in his hand than that an unhinged maniac with the intellectual capacity of a jar of Play-Doh simply wanted to execute an unfamiliar black person.

Darren Wilson wasn’t asked to prove whether or not he shot Michael Brown because he was afraid of black people, generally, and suspected apropos of his own intuition that Brown was up to something. George Zimmerman wasn’t asked to prove whether or not he is racist, although he used to festoon his Twitter page with enough Confederate Flag photos to make a convincing case. Rahm Emanuel wasn’t asked to prove whether or not he intentionally drew up a political calculus that determined Laquan McDonald’s short life was worth another four more years as the country’s most despised mayor. That is the lesson learned by Hattie McDaniel, who hoped to prove she could be a “credit” to her race, and it is the one the Hollywood is still teaching. But they won’t make this same mistake next year.