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Applaud Denzel, Not Hollywood


Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The much anticipated moment when pre-Oscar night favorite Denzel Washington would clutch the Oscar to his chest for his winning performance as boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the film Hurricane never came. Washington's chance to become only the second African-American to win the top acting award almost certainly went down the tubes when critics waged a relentless back door campaign to tarnish the movie.

These critics publicly wailed that Hurricane's makers took colossal license with the film by glossing over Carter's violent criminal past and falsifying the facts in the fight to overturn his murder conviction. They charged that the filmmakers elevated Carter, a black ex-convict, to near sainthood to satisfy the politically correct crowd. The critics hoped that if they splattered enough mud on the film it would hopelessly taint Washington's towering performance and scare Academy votes away from him.

It worked. Academy members caved into the barrage against the film and snubbed Washington. But don't count on any remorse from Hollywood for blowing its chance to make Washington a poster boy for racial diversity in the film industry. It has been nearly four decades since Hollywood named Sidney Poitier best actor for his role as Homer Smith the happy-go-lucky traveling laborer who cheerfully helped nuns build a small church in Lilies of the Field in 1963. Since then only a minute handful of blacks have even been nominated for top awards. None have won.

There's no mystery why the film industry has stubbornly refused to select another black as its top award winner. Less than 200 of the more than 5,600 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science members that pick the Oscar winners are black. In the 72 years that Hollywood has showered its top awards on its leading lights, exclusive of the Poitier and Washington best male actor award, here's how blacks have fared on Oscar night:

  • No black has ever won an Academy Award for best female actress.
  • Only 5 blacks have won Academy Awards for best supporting roles.
  • Hattie McDaniel who won the best supporting actress award for her role as a maid in Gone With The Wind in 1939 was barred from the "whites only" premier of the film in Atlanta.
  • Only one black has been nominated for a best film director award.
  • No blacks have been nominated for a best film writer award.

The great Hollywood whiteout of blacks goes far beyond refusing to nominate and award black film performers, directors and writers its top awards.

  • Only 5 percent of Hollywood motion pictures are directed by African-Americans.
  • Only 5 percent of the Directors and Writers Guild members are black.
  • Only 2 percent of the 4,000 member union local that includes decorators and property managers are black.

Film industry bigwigs say that the shameful exclusion of blacks from the industry is changing. They point to the score of black male actors that have made a big splash on the screen in non-racially stereotypical roles and their general acceptance by the film going public. They also cite the decision by the Directors Guild of America in 1999 to strike the name of filmmaker D.W. Griffith from its annual award to top film director. Griffith was rightly dumped for making the grotesque, racially assaultive film Birth of a Nation in 1915 that played a monster part in poisoning racial attitudes toward blacks for much of the 20th century.

While these are welcome steps by the film industry they still skirt the issue of Hollywood's refusal to create more opportunities for blacks. This is not a matter of begging Hollywood to open its door. It's a matter of dollars. During the four decades between the awards to Poitier and Washington the black movie going audience has soared. The estimate is that blacks purchase an estimated one-fourth of all movie tickets in the United States and have helped fuel the huge renaissance in Hollywood filmmaking.

The NAACP nailed the TV industry to the wall for its ethnic sanitizing of the airwaves. It got TV executives to at least make a paper promise to hire and promote more minorities on and off screen. But film executives make no such promise. They have tightly tied their racial blinders and gear much of their filmmaking toward dissecting the frolics and foibles of pubescent white teens and neurotic middle-class suburbanites. Their emphasis is on showcasing film performers that appeal to them. In future years when the Academy dishes out its awards these will be performers, and not the current crop of black film names, likely to bag the awards. This is why Denzel should be applauded, but not Hollywood.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming, The Disappearance of Black Leadership (Middle Passage Press, Los Angeles, May 2000) Order Information: 323-298-0266. He is also director of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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. . Theodore Myles Publishing(323) 296-1760
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