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With African-American talent again shut out in the major Oscar categories, the film Academy finds itself facing a moment of truth

Story by Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang


With African-American talent again shut out in the major Oscar categories, the film Academy finds itself facing a moment of truth

Story by Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang

Black Artists Matter

With African-American talent again shut out in the major Oscar categories, the film Academy finds itself facing a moment of truth

Story by Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang

While presenting the best picture Oscar to “The Last Emperor” at the 1988 Academy Awards, Eddie Murphy expressed concern about the racist undertones of the ceremony.

“I just feel we have to be recognized as people,” said Murphy, revealing his reluctance to even show up that evening. “I will give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society, and we will not bring up the rear anymore.”

Sadly, nearly 30 years later, his words are just as relevant.

The Oscars telecast on Feb. 28, hosted by Chris Rock, will air following weeks of controversy over #OscarsSoWhite. For the second consecutive year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors in its top categories, and in that time has failed to recognize black directors such as Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”). The backlash has plunged the Academy into a crisis that undermines its legitimacy and standing, drawing criticism from its own president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — even U.S. presidential contenders like Hillary Clinton have weighed in — and has led talent from Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott the show.

Illustration by Jaxon Northon for Variety

The 88-year history of the Oscars has always been complicated when it comes to matters of race, starting in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, honored for her supporting role in “Gone With the Wind,” as a maid. In the 76 years since McDaniel picked up her Oscar at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel, only 13 other black actors have taken home the award. In fact, it wasn’t until 1964 that Sidney Poitier became the next black actor to win an Oscar — and the first in a leading role — for “Lillies of the Field.”

Even when the Academy has responded appropriately to social upheaval — postponing the 1968 telecast in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination — it did so because performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong had threatened not to attend.

For an industry that is famously liberal, Hollywood feels oddly retrograde on matters of racial equality. It is, after all, the end of the second term of the country’s first black president, and the Emmys and Grammys are pan-ethnic celebrations. The Oscars are supposed to be Hollywood’s biggest and classiest event, and inclusiveness has always been an important theme. “When I watched as a kid,” says Whoopi Goldberg, “I believed what they said — your peers were judging you. I thought that was a great thing.” For this special Oscars issue, Variety interviewed black actors, directors, writers and other storytellers to get their reflections on the awards show. “I think the Academy has a long road ahead,” says John Ridley, who won an Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave.” “I’ve been in meetings. It’s not just lip service.” He adds that the Oscars are indicative of a wider problem — the lack of diverse voices in film. “We should be outraged. But selective outrage doesn’t help us.”

Some Oscar winners, like Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Steve McQueen, refused to be included for this story. When McQueen, who directed and produced “12 Years a Slave,” winner of the 2014 best picture honors, talked to Variety by phone for an interview not realizing the questions would be about race, he quickly retreated. “No, no,” he said, before hanging up. “I don’t want to be considered (for this story).” Asked about the controversy at a party for new Broadway play, Forest Whitaker stormed away from a reporter, refusing to comment. These differing points of view reflect a film industry at a crossroads.

Hattie McDaniel accepts her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress during the 12th Academy Awards.
Courtesy of AMPAS

Black Oscar Winners: A Short List

In the 88 year history of the Academy Awards, only 17 blacks artists — 14 of them actors — have won an Oscar in the eight major categories encompassing producing, directing, acting and writing. In fact, no black filmmaker has won the top directing prize for narrative feature.


Hattie McDaniel

“Gone With the Wind” (1940)

Sidney Poitier

“Lilies of the Field” (1964)

Louis Gossett, Jr.

“An Officer and a Gentleman” (1983)

Denzel Washington

“Glory” (1990)

Whoopi Goldberg

“Ghost” (1991)

Cuba Gooding, Jr.

“Jerry Maguire” (1997)

Halle Berry

“Monster’s Ball” (2002)

Denzel Washington

“Training Day" (2002)

Jamie Foxx

“Ray” (2005)

Morgan Freeman

“Million Dollar Baby” (2005)

Jennifer Hudson

“Dreamgirls” (2007)

Forest Whitaker

“The Last King of Scotland” (2007)


“Precious” (2010)

Octavia Spencer

“The Help” (2012)

Lupita Nyong’o

“12 Years a Slave” (2014)

Gold indicates leading role

Producer (Best Picture)

Steve McQueen

“12 Years a Slave” (2014)

Adapted Screenplay

Geoffrey Fletcher

“Precious” (2010)

John Ridley

“12 Years a Slave” (2014)

Hattie McDaniel
CBS via Getty Images

When “Gone With the Wind” opened in 1939, Jim Crow restrictions prevented McDaniel from attending the film’s star-studded Atlanta premiere. And in February 1940, while the actress made history as the first black person to win an Oscar, she wasn’t even seated with the rest of her cast. In presenting the award, the Academy made it clear it hoped to break barriers.“To me, it seems more than just a plaque of gold,” said presenter Fay Bainter. “It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls and enables us to embrace the whole of America.” Fighting back tears in a speech written for her by the studio, McDaniel said, “This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” adding, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

Mo’Nique (2010 best supporting actress winner for “Precious”): “There’s a lot that (McDaniel) wanted to say that she couldn’t. Imagine being in your beautiful gown and hair and makeup, but they seat you in the back. Can you imagine what that felt like? I’m grateful for the fights that she had, so that I wouldn’t have to have them. I keep a picture of her up in my closet, and from time to time, it looks like her smile changes depending on what’s happening. It’s like she’s saying, ‘Keep standing. You can’t waver from what you know is right.’ ”

But McDaniel’s victory hardly ushered in a new era of tolerance in the entertainment industry, and did little to open doors for the actress, who was consigned to small supporting parts until her death in 1952. After her win, it would take 24 years for Poitier to become the next black actor to win the award, and a further two decades before Louis Gossett Jr. became the third, for his supporting

Poitier declined to comment for this story, but told journalist Allison Samuels in a never-before-published 2002 interview that winning the Oscar left him with a feeling of responsibility.

Sidney Poitier: “I was always aware of the message I was sending in my work. Shortly after ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ I made a movie called ‘For Love of Ivy.’ It was a film about a black man in love with a black woman. ‘A Warm December’ was also a love story about two black leads in love. That was very important to me. I wanted to make sure I presented love and black love onscreen. I understood that wasn’t something shown very often, and I took it as my responsibility to change that, because I was in a position where I could in some way.”

Morgan Freeman (2005 best supporting actor winner for “Million Dollar Baby”): “(Poitier’s Oscar) meant that I could too. His whole life meant that I could. His whole career informed me.”

Whoopi Goldberg’s 1991 win for “Ghost” was the fifth by a black actor.
Eugene Adebari/REX/Shutterstock

Whoopi Goldberg (1991 supporting actress winner for “Ghost”): “We watched every year. We thought Sidney should have won for ‘In the Heat of the Night.’ From the time that Hattie McDaniel won to the time Sidney won was how long? It’s kind of amazing that in our lifetime, we saw things shift.”

Debbie Allen (Oscars performer and choreographer): “I always watched the Oscars as a child, and loved every minute of it. But, of course, I never saw anyone who looked like me on the screen. I won’t ever forget the year (1973) Cicely Tyson was nominated for ‘Sounder,’ and Diana Ross was nominated for ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ ”

Louis Gossett Jr. (1983 best supporting actor winner for “An Officer and a Gentleman”): “Sidney was born a Bahamian. So in the records, I’m the first African-American man to win the Oscar. It’s a piece of history. From then on, it was a reality trip, because I got a lot of work in television, but hardly any movies. To this day, I’ve never made $1 million for a movie. I like to think my role was to open the doors for the Denzel Washingtons, the Morgan Freemans, the Forest Whitakers.”

Washington accepts the Oscar, the fourth for a black actor, for his performance in the film.

In 1990, Washington won his first Oscar for supporting actor for “Glory.” The following year, Goldberg won for “Ghost,” an award Washington presented to her. Indeed, the mid-’80s and ’90s seemed to mark a sea-change in the business, with the emergence of bankable African American leads such as Goldberg, Washington, Murphy and, later, Will Smith, who made the leap from TV’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” African Americans also made strides in behind-the-scenes roles, with John Singleton scoring the first nomination for a black director in 1992 for “Boyz n the Hood.”

Goldberg: “I called my mom, who did not watch, because she didn’t want to see me disappointed. And I said, ‘But I won.’ And she was very happy. I had been making these kinds of speeches my whole life — in the mirror.”

Willie D. Burton (1989 and 2007 sound wins for “Bird” and “Dreamgirls”): “It’s so heavy, the Oscar. My hand dropped the second it was handed to me. I thought I would break it. When people came up to me at the parties and asked to touch it or hold it, I’d keep one hand on it to make sure it didn’t fall.”

Gossett Jr.: “The best thing that happened, when I went to get my eggs for breakfast the next morning, the people in the supermarket stopped what they were doing and gave me applause. The whole supermarket went crazy. So everywhere I went, there was applause. You begin to realize, when you win an award, maybe you’re doing what God put you on the planet to do.”

Russell Williams (1990 and ’91 sound mixing Oscars for “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves”): “It was my first time seeing what I call the glam side of the business. For me, as a craftsman, I was just excited to get a steady paycheck. My life hadn’t been about red carpets. You’re walking to the stage, and there’s Dustin Hoffman in a tuxedo and tennis shoes.”

Until the mid-’90s, the Oscars host had always been a white man. But after four consecutive years as emcee, Billy Crystal decided to sit out 1994’s ceremony. He suggested his good friend Goldberg as a replacement.

Goldberg: “I got the offer, and was kind of freaked out, called Billy, and said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘I told them they should come to you. You’ll be fine.’ I was, and I had a great time. Everybody is a critic. People say shitty things about you. Of the four times I hosted, we got boycotted, too. Quincy Jones was producing, I was hosting, and somebody said, ‘There’s no black people.’ Wait a minute!”

Halle Berry is the only black actress to have won the Oscar for a leading role, for "Monster's Ball" in 2002.
Peter Brooker/REX/Shutterstock

The early aughts continued to offer diverse voices. The 2002 ceremony represented another major milestone, marking the first time that best actor and actress Oscars went to black performers — Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.” Poitier returned to the Oscars to receive an honorary award, and Goldberg was host. Three years later, Freeman won for his supporting role in “Million Dollar Baby.” And in 2007, when Jennifer Hudson took the supporting actress Oscar for “Dreamgirls,” women of color dominated the category, including “Babel” stars Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. That same year, Forest Whitaker won the best actor trophy for “The Last King of Scotland.”

Forest Whitaker: “(My Oscar) is in my home on the stairs, so my family can see it. It was obviously overwhelming. It’s like an electric jolt to be acknowledged like that by your peers.”

Freeman: “What stands out for me is that they called my name. I kind of expected it, because I’d been nominated; that was my fifth nomination. I thought sooner or later, they are going to break down. Because since this was supporting and not lead, I figured I could probably manage it.”

Jennifer Hudson: “It was like a dream. One, I had never seen the Oscars. I had never acted before. Jamie Foxx was the first person who was like, ‘I see it coming. You’re going to win an Oscar for that.’ Even out of his mouth, I was like — ‘Really?’ Most people anticipated it. But if you’re nominated for an Oscar, you’re not supposed to talk about it; you’re not supposed to jinx it.”

T.J. Martin (2012 documentary winner for “Undefeated”): It’s complicated. To win as the first director of African American origin, there’s a shock that it’s taken so long. It’s bittersweet in the sense that it opened my eyes to people’s inability to have a larger conversation about race.

Lupita Nyong’o’s win for “12 Years a Slave” is the most recent by a black actor.
Jim Smeal/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

Ellen DeGeneres kicked off the 2013 Oscar telecast by telling Academy voters that there were two possible outcomes to the night — either “12 Years a Slave” would win best picture or they were “all racists.” Fortunately, the film prevailed, picking up three statues, including supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o and adapted screenplay for Ridley.

Lupita Nyong’o: “I became emotional because what struck me most is to have so much happiness and joy come out of something that was so painful for the person whose story I was telling.”

Ridley: “I remember my parents cautioning me, ‘You want to go to Hollywood? There are so few black actors.’ I hope my win is inspirational because of my race, despite my race, because of my ability, despite my failings. If I can get there, anybody who works can get there. It’s OK to remind people that it’s all right to dream.”

Last month, after Academy voters had shut out performers and directors of color for two years, the Board of Governors voted to double the number of women and minorities among the Academy’s membership by 2020. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs expressed regret over the all white lineup, calling it “heartbreaking.”

Herbie Hancock (1987 music winner for “ ’Round Midnight”): “I thought that Hollywood was getting better. But in the case of ‘Selma,’ to neglect that director and to pass by (actor David Oyelowo) didn’t make sense to me. It makes me think a lot of white people who are in the Academy never saw the film. I think it’s neglect. I hate to call it racism. It’s something so deep within one’s subconscious that the lines are kind of blurred.”

Nyong’o: “I don’t necessarily think there are roles written for me. But I am filled with gratitude for the kinds of roles I’ve been able to play thus far. At the end of the day, judging from what we’ve seen, the fact is there are more stories being told with Caucasian protagonists. That’s a fact; it’s not a feeling. What we’re talking about is changing fact. I have no doubt it can change. I’m optimistic it can change. It’s one project at a time — that’s how it changes.”

Mo’Nique: “Let’s have a real and open conversation. That’s when change will happen in Hollywood. To ask me about a trophy is really irrelevant. It’s just a trophy. But why is there such a pay gap? If there’s a black film coming out and it’s an all-black cast, why is it that it’s a low-budget film? The offers I oftentimes receive are less than what I got 11 years ago, and that was before I won the Oscar.”

Morgan Freeman, a five-time nominee, won for “Million Dollar Baby.”
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Martin: “I’m not in the Academy. I’ve been told different things. I’ve been told you need at least two theatrical releases on your resume to be a member, and people have told me that if you win, you’re in. I don’t know. It’s almost more telling. There’s a big conversation about the lack of diversity within the Academy itself, and then someone who won hasn’t been invited. That’s shining a light on a broken system.”

Freeman: “If we’re going to talk about diversity in the film industry, we don’t need to start with the Academy Awards. We need to start somewhere way back — with the producers, the directors, the casting agents, the writers.”

Goldberg: “I’m of the feeling you can change the Academy as much as you want, but it doesn’t help the cause until there are more movies that reflect the world we live in. Not just black actors or Asian actors, but all of us. There’s no reason why there couldn’t have been a black representation in the new Coen brothers movie, because that would have been a perfect place to have this conversation. That was not the movie they wanted to make, but I’m saying if you’re not there to be voted on, it doesn’t matter who makes up the Academy.”

Allison Samuels and Debra Birnbaum contributed to this story