BSC discusses relationship between black actors and the Academy Awards, race and cinema.
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 15:02
This past Sunday evening, a couple hours before the 85th annual Academy Awards took place in Hollywood, the Davidson College Black Student Coalition hosted a thought-provoking conversation about the historically sparse representation of African-Americans at the Oscars. The conversation centered on the relationship between black actors and the Academy Awards, but it also dealt with the broader relationship between race and cinema.
In the 85-year history of the Oscars, there have only been 28 black Oscar winners; only seven of those 28 have been female. Furthermore, many of the roles for which black actors have won an Academy Award have dwelled on negative portrayals of blackness. Mo’Nique, for example, won an Oscar in 2010 for her performance as an abusive mother in “Precious.” It was a stunning piece of acting, but it also raised some concerns about unflattering portrayals of black characters in movies. The same debate was sparked eight years earlier in 2002 after Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his role as a corrupt police officer in “Training Day.” The issue of agency has also caused controversy. Two recent Academy Award-nominated movies, “The Help” (for which Octavia Spencer won an Oscar) and “The Blind Side” (for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar), focus on the role of white benevolence in contributing to black uplift. In “The Blind Side,” black football player Michael Oher perseveres through hardship and has a thriving life only after he is shown kindness by his adopted white parents. In “The Help,” an uplifting story set during the devastating era of Jim Crow segregation is told largely through the prism of the white protagonist played by Emma Stone. These movies came under fire for their disproportionate emphasis on white protagonists. The conversation at the BSC confronted these complicated issues and brainstormed about ways the movie industry can design roles of greater agency and complexity for black actors.
During the discussion, a few important questions were raised: Do black actors have to take on unflattering roles that border on racial stereotypes in order to win an Oscar? Would there be public uproar if the Academy establishes a category using the ambiguous and complicated language of “Best Urban Contemporary Film,” just as the Grammys created an award for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” this past year, in a decision that had racial overtones? Do black artists have an obligation to uphold certain standards? For the last question, the recent controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana was used as an example. Saldana was recently cast to play Nina Simone in a biopic about Simone, even though Saldana has to darken her complexion with the aid of makeup in order to resemble Nina Simone, the legendary singer and activist who was an outspoken opponent against colorism.
The issues discussed at the BSC are tricky and not easily solved. However, the conversation was productive and necessary. Issues of race too often go overlooked, especially in Hollywood, where entertainment often takes precedence over serious social matters. Conversations like the one Sunday night at the BSC have the potential to demystify the role of race not only in Hollywood, but also in society in general. Progress cannot be achieved unless people are willing to address uncomfortable issues.