I consider myself unbiased when it comes to watching and enjoying films. I don’t care if the film has an all black cast, an all white cast, a mixed cast, or a CGI cast of animated talking rocks. A great movie is a great movie, and great actors are great actors.
Are there tremendous black actors working in Hollywood?
Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Zoe Saldana, Samuel L Jackson, Gabrielle Union, Morgan Freeman, Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Don Cheadle, Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Will Smith, Sidney Poiter, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett, Regina King, Jennifer Hudson, Lupita N’yongo, Kerry Washingon, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, and an ever growing list of new talent (and ones I’m just not going to bother to mention).
The conversation this year is a little saddening, because it seems to take away from the current nominees and their work on screen. I personally saw over 125 films last year, and with the lone exception of Idris Elba being snubbed for Beasts Of No Nation, I’m not sure how the Oscars would have put more color into their acting categories this year. With the exception of Elba, my list would have resulted in 19/20 white acting nominees.
I actually think that the #OscarsSoWhite problem has nothing to do with the voting base of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, but rather with there just not being enough good roles for actors of color in Hollywood. This is a problem that Viola Davis tipped her hat to in her Emmy acceptance speech. The problem this year isn’t that all white actors were nominated, but rather that there weren’t enough great roles given to black actors this year. I thought Will Smith did a good job in Concussion, but he’s had better roles (Ali, Pursuit Of Happyness), and I didn’t feel the need to even include him in my top 10. Same for Samuel L Jackson (The Hateful Eight). And while I loved Michael B Jordan in Creed enough to include him in my top 10, there were five other actors I loved more.
But that’s not always the case. I absolutely was pulling for Viola Davis when she was nominated for The Help, and I loved Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave. That year was tough for me, because I would have been fine with either EJiofor or McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) taking home the Oscar. I thought both did exceptional work. I was happy when Octavia Spencer grabbed hers for The Help, Halle Berry for Monsters Ball, Jamie Foxx for Ray, and Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls.
Black actors and actresses do win, perhaps though not as often as they should be.
There are actors who get snubbed every year too, and Elba joins an ever growing list of performances we’ll look back on years from now and say “wait, they weren’t even NOMINATED for that?”
I’m personally offended at the idea that white voters don’t vote for black contenders. That’s just simply not true. People who truly appreciate film, the art of film, and celebrate the way that film can impact its audience should be able to celebrate the work for what it is. I do not believe that this year is truly representative of Oscar voting, but rather the industry as a whole needing to examine what it takes to be a box office star. At a time when Furious 7 can explode at the box office with a multi-racial cast, it’s time to start seeing more casting diversity in films. For example, Emma Stone did not need to be playing an Asian in Aloha. Joseph Fiennes sure as fuck doesn’t need to be playing Michael Jackson. These are things that have nothing to do with the Oscars, and have everything to do with casting and studio heads wanting “bankable talent”. Somehow, actors of color are typically seen as less bankable than white actors, yet Bradley Cooper’s Burnt and Aloha both tanked, Bill Murray’s Rock The Kasbah tanked, and Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis also… tanked. These are star driven films by white actors/actresses, and they flopped.
You know what did pretty good this year?
The Perfect Guy starring a trio of very attractive people who just happen to all be black. Sanaa Lathan opened a thriller in September to 25 million dollars. She should be declared the next big thing by those standards, yet she’s not. With a reported budget of 12 million, and a final gross of 60M worldwide, The Perfect Guy should have sent a message to Hollywood that more of these films need to be made.
Granted, we do have a lot of films led by black actors this year. There’s Ride Along 2, Race, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Keanu, Central Intelligence, and When The Bough Breaks (another September black thriller, this time pairing Morris Chestnut with Regina Hall). However, none of these films are OSCAR films. So, we have to hope that somehow either people remember Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles Davis performance, or that Nate Parker’s upcoming Nat Turner biopic Birth of A Nation sweep the Oscars next year, because the Academy sure as fuck isn’t going to nominate Boo! A Madea Halloween.
Hopefully the movie industry will take a cue from the TV industry, which has realized that ethnic casts do in fact bring in an audience. Whether it’s FOX’s Empire, ABC’s Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder, or Netflix’s diverse Orange Is The New Black, the biggest hits seem to feature a diverse cast. Shows like Shades Of Blue, American Crime, Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, Dr Ken, and Rosewood are showing that TV really does get it. Talent doesn’t have a color, or a race, talent is talent.
One day, sometime soon hopefully, the movie industry will catch up. Michael B Jordan will be a matinee idol, Viola Davis will be in theatres and on TV, and Idris Elba will finally get an Oscar nomination. And when he does, hopefully he’ll know it was because he truly deserved it, and his peers deemed him the best performance of the year. Equality doesn’t mean grading on a curve. Voters shouldn’t be told to “vote for color” simply to appease an audience, when it’s not their fault that the list they were given to choose from is sparse.
Somehow, Michael B Jordan’s NAACP Image Award win for Best Actor seems less triumphant when you realize his competition was Michael Ealy (The Perfect Guy) and not Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant).
One day, I hope both Jordan and Elba get their dues, but I want it to be because their performance was truly one of the best of the year. That starts with casting, not with voting. #OscarsSoWhite has targeted the wrong group.