White Guilt In Hollywood

The Academy Awards are regarded as regal royalty in Hollywood. Pivotal in an artist’s career, the moment one wins an Oscar is both life-defining and life-altering. As the 84th annual Academy Awards took place, many viewed with much anticipation, speculation, and desire in hopes that their favorite celebrities, the ones who touched their core or made them laugh would be held in great esteem. However, as the awards show progressed, I realized that the Academy Awards is an overwhelmingly exclusive society whose primary focus will never be inclusivity, which may or may not be the problem.

In studying the demographics of Oscar voters, the Los Angeles Times found that there are 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Of that number, nearly 94 percent are Caucasian and 77 percent men. Blacks represent about 2 percent of the Academy. That being said, surely one begins to wonder, just what elements are necessary to win an Academy Award? Moreover, exactly how might an African American obtain an Oscar?

Fact: there is a prodigious lack of representation of minorities as participants in the Academy.  There is a lack of diversity apparent and the omission of any group, black or otherwise, directly impacts the perspective when considering ballots. White guilt is prevalent in Hollywood by , as their representation monopolizes the most coveted, illustrious entertainment industry.

Paying little to no attention to talent, nor its objectivity, one can easily assess the state of the Academy Awards in relation to black America. The concern is not whether any nominee is deserving of the great statue. The focus is with to whom it is presented and why. In 2011, mainstream America saw two movies that emphasized, supported and employed African American actors, “The Help,” and “Red Tails.” Both films saw a season of tumultuous press and seemed eager for great approval.

George Lucas had no problem declaring the sentiments of many African American directors before him, that Hollywood does not see a visible lane for movies supporting all black casts. They see them as unmarketable, thus very few are green lit. He proclaimed that he used his own money in efforts to tell the story of a community he can only sympathize with as a white male. Realizing the only way that a film about black people with an all-blackcast would only see Hollywood is if he became a martyr and carried the African American community on his back, Lucas help to reaffirm and confirm the just of Hollywood.

Controversial as it may be, “The Help,” a story depicting domestic women and how they fare in society garnered much criticism from its supporting community. African Americans were enthralled that this story was still being told. Interestingly enough, the voters of the Academy found room to nominate two African American women for Best Lead and Best Supporting roles in a film.

The fact of the matter is that in 2012, the only chance an African American woman has at winning an Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role is if she plays a domestic, a longstanding practice of the Academy. There have been many an actress nominated for domestic roles, and the first to win was Hattie McDaniel in 1940. The implication is that the Academy sees African Americans then as they do now; I am devastated.  Not as an artist, because I know that the objective of an actor is three-dimensional story telling, but as an African American.  Not one black male was nominated in an acting category, and Viola Davis’ loss makes me believe incessantly that the Academy deems it necessary to give at least one black actor an Oscar, whether they deserve it or not. We are not being praised merely for our efforts to succinctly transport and captivate audiences, although we do, and well. Simply put, the Academy is keeping up with the times and what looks like progression is not.

Sure, many will exclaim it necessary for African Americans to write, produce, direct, and star in their own films, but this is something that has been done for many generations. The problem is that African Americans find it difficult to get into the room, and when we do its as if there are no seats left. In gratitude, it appears our good fortune is having the guilt of whites in Hollywood. Over decades it has cascaded us to new heights and we have been able to take every bit of what has been given to us and expand. Just over ten years ago history was made, as Halle Berry and Denzel Washington were the first and only to win Oscars for Best Actor/Actress in a leading role in the same night. That moment was magical and deemed a catalyst. But I don’t think Hollywood will ever completely change its consciousness and focus highly on the quality of work represented. Also, it’s likely that its membership program will not explore options of gaining equal representation. So I ponder, how far have we come; and are we sure we’re headed in the right direction?

  • James Gorham

    This is so true and a good argument on the direction of Hollywood. I do question how many years or will it ever be possible for a black productions such as Red Tails to get recognition within the Academy and Oscar Awards?

  • KEiTH_ANDRE

    Indeed! Thanks for commenting James. let’s just hope that in the years to come the academy will recognize change! Id be happy to see African Americans nominated in every major category all at one time.. but there’s hope!

  • http://racambridge.wordpress.com Radcliffe Cambridge

    Very interesting piece. And I agree with all points. I want to further elaborate on something. If you haven’t noticed it, in the last decade you would see that the role that African American Actors have been receiving Oscar nominations r for roles that r very much akin to the African American community. For instance, you had Terrence Howard getting his nomination for playing a pimp, or Mo’Nique getting her nomination for playing a very ghetto violent woman. But other roles that some black actors play get overlooked. So I think the moment when equality when it come to recognition will come is when the Academy starts nominating black actors in roles that have a broad appeal and not a specific target.

  • KEiTH_ANDRE

    Yes Radcliffe! Preach! Thanks for your input!

  • http://www.msyayaworld.com MsYaYa

    All I can say is We have come FAR!!!!

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      Amen… and we will keep going!

      • KEiTH_ANDRE

        thats definitely an interesting way of putting. I don’t think the question is one of validation, its not that we seek their approval. Also, Im not sure separating ourselves any further will fix the problem. Do you think anything will ever be all inclusive? is that even possible? thank you for your comment!

  • http://www.skillzdidit.com Michael

    I just saw a video talking about this and the person that was being interviewed (I forgot who it was) said the answer to this problem is for blacks to come together and have our own damn Oscars… Its 2012 and we’re being treated no different than from years past. That should tell us something. For all the years we’ve been trying to conform to the larger society, for us to still be stagnant is beyond ridiculous. If you’re still trying to fit in with people who don’t want you to, then come 2025 don’t be surprised if this conversation is still be going on….

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      indeed… but do you feel that solves the problem? would a separate all african american awards show include white america or perpetuate the same standards of the oscars?

  • Tereno Burroughs II

    Wow! Keith I would like to take this time to thank you for not only writing but sharing this article with me. It not only enlightens, but puts things into perspective. While reading this article I could not help but think about one of the media classes I took and how we talked about the decline of respectable representation of African American artists in the media industry. I agree with everything that has been said thus far and when looking at the point made about making more movies that either have all black casts or depicts the African American race in a respectable light, I can’t help but think about so many movies that inspired me or had substance that was over looked. For example The Great Debaters, The Secret Life of the Bees, The Motion Picture of A Rasin In the Sun, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Pride. All of this leads me to believe that one of the keys to solving this issue is expanding representation within the Academy vote. Becoming knowledgeable on the credentials needed to attain a position within the academy, and progressing from there.

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      very well said Tereno! when you know better you do better! thanks for commenting!

  • http://tdub68.wordpress.com todd whitley

    it is sad…and makes me think “separate but equal” is still in effect when the majority (whites) won’t go support movies with all black casts. complete sadness.

    and since the movie economy is controlled by what we buy tickets for, we either get mainstream movies of whites with whites (transformers 14 with the single token black), a black ensemble about domestics or life in the ghetto, or a Tyler Perry movie. sadly, very few of the latter gain popular support (“Precious,” “Coming to America”…uhm…??).

    (and i know this is true firsthand: more than once, i have been the only white moviegoer in films such as “waiting to exhale,” “finding forrester,” “antwone fisher,” “hustle & flow,” and every Tyler Perry movie.)

    there are so MANY talented actors of other races besides white yet it appears that the almighty whites (i’m mocking my race here) dictate yet another industry.

    [anecdote: i just watched “the eraser” with Schwarzenegger & Vanessa Williams playing a role that would have typically gone to a white woman…but…despite costing $100M to make and taking in over $223M, apparently it never really created a trend, did it???)

    in my heart, i believe Octavia Spencer earned that Oscar, despite playing a domestic and not because she was meeting a quota. [The fact that she was played off the stage preventing her from getting to the crux of her acceptance speech STILL has me beyond furious!] and my heart is broken for Viola Davis failing to win that statue (which she honestly deserved SO much for her role in “Doubt”) but perhaps in this case, maybe she really DID lose to a little-bit better performance? hard to tell. still struggling with this one.

    i’m sure there are tons of reasons why whites are still dominating….material being written, fickle moviegoers, opportunities for black actors to develop, and on and on.

    but until we as a society are able to appreciate each others’ cultures AND ALSO able to join together in film that is color-less, the Academy, i fear, is going to remain white-biased. :(

    thanks for a great article.

    • http://tdub68.wordpress.com todd whitley

      “The Eraser” … meant to point out that this film came out in 1996… progressive, right? *sigh*

      • KEiTH_ANDRE

        Thanks for reading, I appreciate your dialogue very much. Also, I need to point out that I agree, wholeheartedly that Octavia Spencer deserved the Academy Award. She was amazing, i failed to mention that in the article.

  • Da’Via Jackson

    Wow!!!!! *speechless*

  • http://www.celitheactress.wordpress.com Franceli Chapman

    I want to thank Keith for a well-written article and Todd for his perspective and insight. I am enthralled by this topic. Being an actress of color myself, I can’t stop talking about this. African-Americans have come a long way, and yet and still have it difficult. With that being said, how about Latinos? Asian-Americans? Arab-American and Native American? Where are they? Boxed into white america’s streamline of stereotypes all over our media. Despite the barriers we must break down, as a woman of color I am thankful for women like Viola Davis, Zoe Saldana, Sophia Vergara, Kerry Washington, and many others whose beauty, intellect, and humanitarian spirit to do good inspires me each day. When the numbers are against us, 77%, we have to look onto the positive images we do have, support those, and continue to fight for them.

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      brava Franceli! thank you so much! I agree, a positive perspective is pertinent!

  • http://anorexicescapades.com BougieHippie

    Not to agree or disagree but good acting is good acting and bad movie is a bad movie. Yes blacks are under represented in cinema however lets not make it about the characters they play but how well. If so the same can be said for white actors who have to play ugly, fat or evil to win.

    As well as as viewers its about the kinda of black produced, written and directed movies we support. Majority of the time studios make what sale. I’ tired of ignoring racism however I’m more tired of making everything about being blacks.

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      good points! thats precisely why I tried to focus most specifically on the numbers and the emphasize the point that its not so much about talent. I wasn’t trying to make everything about being black, but the fact of the matter is of all the variation of roles both good and bad, which are nominated and received well at the Oscars? Also, studio make what they THINK will sale, and that rarely includes African American movies. I appreciate your voice, thank you!

  • Ariel

    First of all these commets have gotten me fired up! Lol. Good article Keith! Reading those stats about who makes up the Academy is sad. Taking race out of the equation, the fact that 77% of the Academy is made up of men is a problem. It’s similar to the old white men who make laws about female reproduction…it makes no sense. There should be more of a balance.
    Now onto the sad situation of race in Hollywood…I unfortunately don’t see it getting any better. In a perfect world movies would be cast in a color blind fashion, and “black movies” would have Academy worthy writers.
    And having a separate awards show would not be the answer. Isn’t that what the NAACP awards do? And sometimes I think those winners aren’t that good. The core of the problem in my opinion is casting and getting more people of color behind the scenes making the important decisions.

  • Ariel

    Also, there should never be any shame in a black woman or man playing a domestic. That is a part of history, that is how they HAD to make their living and their stories should be honored.

    • KEiTH_ANDRE

      YES Ariel!! awesome feed back! You’re right, the reality of the situation is the need for blind casting and more diversity behind the scenes. Thank you of your feedback!

  • Tim Mack (@MaddMack)

    Wow. This was great. Articulate and personal position on the movie industry. The struggles African-Americans have in most industries continues. In nearly all media industries, it is hard for us to break through because whites refuse or don’t understand our perspective. Our perspective of the American life isn’t respected nor acknowledged and as a result our stories can’t be told, properly. Lastly, I can’t stand Tyler Perry, but I must respect his ability to force his way through the back door, even if they’re ultra dramatic, poorly written stories.

    This was great though, I feel educated on the industry a bit more.

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