brucekluger.com

    The Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1999

    Commentary
    Once Again, Oscars Snub African Americans

    By Bruce Kluger


    Hollywood's big night is upon us. But unlike past
    Academy Award telecasts, for which I've donned my
    formal bathrobe, put my feet up and followed along
    on my office pool ballot, this year I will quietly
    boycott the festivities. After decades as Oscar's
    biggest fan, I've come to an unsettling conclusion:
    Spike Lee is rightthe Academy Awards are racist.

    "With African American artists in front and behind
    the camera," Lee has said, "the Academy has been
    slow to recognize their work. This is not sour grapes
    or playing the angry black man, it's just the truth."

    I agree. This year, once again, none of the 25 actor, actress or director
    nominations went to blacks; nor do any of the 15 best film or screenplay contenders
    (with the exception of Bulworth) concern matters remotely connected to the African
    American community.

    While I've often taken issue with what Lee sees as this nation's vast white-wing
    conspiracy, I give his Oscar theory two thumbs up. As a home video reviewer for
    magazines, I've screened scores of movies in the past decade that never made it to
    my neighborhood, films by and about African Americans escorted black cinema
    from mean streets to family dining room table, painting a vivid portrait of the African
    American middle class. So why are these efforts never rewarded with a seat at the
    Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

    I admit that of all the years I picked to lodge my living room sit-in, this was a dubious
    one for black filmmakers. The offerings were slim in '98, with only Lee's He Got
    Game bubbling to the surface as an extraordinary peek into one family's domestic
    turmoil. And this makes me wonder if Oscar has more power than we realize. Has
    the Academy's endless snub of black movies sent filmmakers fleeing the business
    or, perhaps, crossing over to more Caucasian climes? What are we to think when
    director Carl Franklinwhose famously ignored Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
    packed every bit the style, suspense and smarts of Academy darling L.A.
    Confidential (1997) but never saw goldfinally scored an Oscar nomination this
    year for his lead actress, Meryl Streep, in the whiter-than-white One True Thing?
    What kind of message does that send?

    Even He Got Game presents a curious example of the racism question. Here's a
    film whose themes are parental fealty, responsibility and the concept of manhood,
    set against the backdrop of basketball fever. Why did the Academy overlook this
    potent cinematic cocktail when, in the past, it awarded similar efforts The Great
    Santini and Hoosiers with Oscar nominations for its actors? What is this telling us?
    "White men can't jump, but they sure can act?"

    There are dozens of other examples of this disturbing double standard, including
    John Singleton's Rosewood (1997), which told the story of the vicious annihilation
    of a black township in Florida in the 1920s, summoning up the same kind of
    palpable hate so chillingly recreated in the Holocaust epic Schindler's List. But
    Schindler earned Oscars; Rosewood faded to black.

    In 1997, the overlooked Eve's Bayou featured actress Jurnee Smollett as a
    Southern child who helplessly watches her family unravel. Like Paper Moon's
    Tatum O'Neal and The Piano's Anna Paquin before her, Smollett proved that a little
    body can deliver a big Oscar-worthy turn. But try telling that to the Academy, which
    for all the attention the film got, presumably never saw Eve's Bayou.

    Speaking of performances, how is it that Oscar recognized Whoopi Goldberg's
    talent in the white love story, Ghost, but turned up its nose at her gripping stint in
    the 1996 civil rights drama Ghosts of Mississippi? Or for that matter, what of Djimon
    Hounsou's breathtaking turn in last year's Amistad? What's interesting is that the
    Academy recognized the films by nominating James Woods for Ghosts of
    Mississippi and Anthony Hopkins for Amistadboth white actors.

    The list goes on. I thought this disturbing trend might end last year with the
    Academy finally awarding Lee an Oscar for his nominated documentary, Four Little
    Girls, a heartbreaking account of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. No such
    luck; the film was nosed out at the wire by The Long Way Home, a Holocaust
    chronicle.

    You can find Four Little Girls at your local video store, where, thankfully, most of
    Hollywood's best Academy Award losers are now showing.