The Corner

White Nights, Black Stars

I’m a little late to the party on the whole brouhaha about the Oscars being too white. I’m not sure it’s the crisis some think it is, but it’s interesting nonetheless. At first, I thought it was a bit like complaining that Ivy League schools don’t admit enough African Americans. First of all, does anyone doubt that such schools would like to admit more African Americans? The problem isn’t one of demand but supply. If K–12 schools, among other institutions, were doing a better job at supplying qualified minority students, elite institutions would eagerly admit them (that is unless elite college administrators are a lot more racist than I’ve been led to believe). The same holds for the Oscars. Sure, one can make a good argument that Selma didn’t get its fair number of nominations, but a far stronger complaint is that African-Americans don’t get enough good roles and director gigs. My guess was that this fact has less to do with institutional racism in left-wing Hollywood and more to do with bottom-line concerns about bankable stars, foreign markets and the rest. But then I thought about it some more.

It strikes me as significant that the biggest shortfall of black actors is in the sort of arty, often very lefty, films the academy likes. Indeed, for African Americans to get noticed by the academy, the movies almost always have to be very high-minded, often excellent, movies about race itself: Selma, Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, Twelve Years a Slave. But how many movies have won — or been nominated — that cast black actors in roles where they were simply human beings doing compelling things other than fighting racism? How many black actors have been nominated or won academy awards for roles that didn’t focus on their struggle with racism? I can’t think of many. It’s an odd artistic ghetto when you think about it. The academy shines its love on blacks, but only when blacks play the role assigned to them by guilty white liberals.

At the same time, Hollywood has made huge progress in making movies that are not about race that nonetheless feature black actors in lead or major roles. The irony is that they tend to be the sort of mass-market action movies and comedies the academy looks down its collective nose at. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for Glory (and deservedly so), but he makes a living as a straight-up action star and an amazing one to boot. Most of his roles these days don’t have much to do with the fact that he’s black and everything to do with the fact that he’s probably one of the most compelling actors of his generation. Of course, none of this is cut-and-dried. He also won a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day. That role didn’t have much to do with race either.

But over all, it’s interesting how the laggards in the movement to integrate the movies are the supposedly high-brow and enlightened artistes and not the mainstream filmmakers who actually try to cater to the broad moving-going public. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe the issue really is institutional racism.

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