How many times have we said that we as a diaspora of handsome and beautiful blackness, are not a monolith; despite the protestations that seeks to categorize us as such? In the past few weeks my industry, Hollywood, has been embroiled in a scandal #OscarsSoWhite due a lack of nominations for undeniably deserving performances by Idris Elba for Beats of No Nation, and David Oyelowo forSelma; 2016 and 2015; respectively. Both performances –for different measure- were indeed worthy of nominations, yet when the ballots were read neither were announced, and that coupled with some other noticeable omissions brought the town to a boiling point over a little gold statue. But why? Why does Oscar matter so darn much to people? Can it be as simple (hence monolith) as people of color are seeking the validation from an all-encompassing Hollywood body that is #SoWhite? Or is it something more; are these men (and women) seeking the holy grail of acting achievement, for their lives work of dedication, study, and sacrifice to the profession they hold in high esteem?
As a fan of movies, and the craft I believe that it is the later, because when a performance is great you forget the name of the actor you are watching, and what you may think you know about him from all the tabloids and social media chatter. All you see is this character he has painstakingly deconstructed to reassemble captured on camera, and his performance can quicken the very air you breathe long after the end credits have rolled. Ah hello, Denzel Washingtonanyone? Who can forget the masterful execution of the one tear brimming his eyes, and falling, as he stood defiantly in Glory -for which he won the Oscar in 1989; or his portrayal of Detective Alonzo “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” Harris in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, winning him a second Oscar some ten years later in 19999?
Immersing oneself into such characters does not come easy. There are emotional, physical, and oftentimes mental demands on the actor that is required for such a performance. As a result when they know, and the critics have agreed that his performance for that year is among the best in show, it is quite a blow to be omitted –especially when opportunity is low, and the nominating field can bare it. Each year nearly 100 films are made of which seven, on average, helmed by Black people receive the major distribution to support a theatrical release –requirement for awards consideration. Of those seven, maybe one in a calendar year is an awards contender (story, direction, acting, composition). That is less than one percent! Why is that? Why are there so few films being made? Shouldn’t these elements be corrected in order to flood the market with awards contenders helmed by people of color?
Black men are seeking to have the opportunity to do character driven-well developed cinematic work that is ultimately recognized as the ‘best’ performance of the year, respective to their field. They are not seeking to be given this hard earned-well honed award based on the color of their skin, no they want it because they worked hard, and earned it. Yet when the scales are tipped so heavily away from that very opportunity to do so it is difficult, and frustrating. And if our collective vantage point is focused solely on the lack, then surely we will deny ourselves, the opportunity of seeing the very best!
Well, there is great news. I have saved you the research of identifying our very best of Black men to have been awarded the Academy Award in its history 87 years of existence. In all, inclusive of above and below the line, there are twenty-six reasons to be clear we seeking a handout, but a acknowledgement of the hand up.
We start with James Baskett. Heard of him? Probably not. Mr. Basket, first Black man to win and Academy Award, was awarded an Academy Special Award forSong of the South (1948). Willie D. Burton, and Russell Williams II, heard of them? Probably not. They are kings of Sound Mixing and have both won 2 Oscar each –Willie for Bird (1998), and Dreamgirls (2006), and Williams for Glory(1990) and Dances With Wolves (1991). Burton is such bad-ass that he has been nominated an additional five times! Don’t even get me started on Quincy Delight Jones, who has been nominated seven times!!
To re-purpose Biggie Smalls “Kick in the door waving the four four,” I look forward to Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Djimon Hounsou (already nominated twice prior), Chiwetel Ejifor, Sam Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Michael B. Jordan, Nate Parker, John Boyega and many others being undeniable and lauded. For I know that these are men of such courage and passion that they will not be deterred, if anything the omission of the past two years will just make them grind harder, having the entire industry bow down –only to rise and salute. In the interim allow us to give you 26 days of our men I their well-earned Academy shine.
By greatest measure,
Tamara N. Houston