The Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1999
Once Again, Oscars Snub African Americans
By Bruce Kluger
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 right—the 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
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 Franklin—whose 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 gold—finally 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 Amistad—both 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
You can find Four Little Girls at your local video store, where, thankfully, most of
Hollywood's best Academy Award losers are now showing.