I remember it well, the year the Academy Awards got too Black for comfort. Some might say it was 2002, the landmark year that Whoopi Goldberg hosted, Denzel finally won his long-deserved Best Actor statuette (for Training Day), Halle Berry became the first black Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, Will Smith was nominated for Ali, and Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award.
That’s certainly the year the starting gate broke, but 2002 wasn’t the Black year to end all Black years. That would be 2005, the year Chris Rock hosted. Don Cheadle was up for Best Actor and Sophie Okenedo for Best Supporting Actress for Hotel Rwanda. Morgan Freeman was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby. Jamie Foxx earned two nods–one for his role in Collateral (Best Supporting) and, of course, one for Ray (Best Actor). Tupac: Resurrection got a nod for Best Documentary. Sharen Davis’ period wardrobe for Ray earned her a slot in the Best Costume Design category. And Beyonce performed three of the five ditties nominated for Best Original Song, despite having neither written nor performed any of them in the films of nomination. (We’re still trying to figure that one out.) That year, Blacks owned the Actor categories, with Morgan taking the Supporting win and Jamie snagging Best. Chris Rock made race jokes all night. Diddy was, inexplicably, seated near the front of the packed audience, just… making his presence known.
Successive years haven’t been too shabby, either. In fact, it’s been a surprisingly equitable half-decade–what with Terrence Howard getting a Best Actor nod for “Djay” in Hustle & Flow and, wonder of all wonders, Three 6 Mafia snatching Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp” (going as far as to perform it with Taraji P. Henson on hook–just like she was in the film itself–before a brothel-esque set and classically trained multiracial “hip-hop dancers”) in 2006; Will Smith’s Pursuit of Happyness nod, Eddie Murphy, Sharen Davis (Costume Design) and Siedah Garrett (Original Song) being nominated and Jennifer Hudson winning for Dreamgirls; and Forest Whitaker’s turn as Idi Amin sewed up Best Actor just last year.
2007’s ceremony seemed to be the culmination of a very long engagement. After a few years of overzealous courtship between the Academy and Black Hollywood, viewers finally got to witness something akin to the first blush of matrimony: something old: Denzel’s (late) Best Actor nod; something new: Jamie Foxx (first Black actor to be nominated in two categories the same year–and they were his first nominations ever); something borrowed: Halle Berry (since, to hear Angela Bassett tell it, that first Black Best Actress statue could’ve been hers); and something (out of the) blue: Jennifer Hudson (the first Black Supporting Actress winner for a debut film performance).
It was a great (if late) wedding. And let’s be honest: like a lot of beloved Black weddings, Oscar’s public display of commitment to us was a bit over the top, wasn’t it? It was one thing to nominate Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, but Academy voters took things to the next, unnecessary level by actually giving her the prize over other more experienced competitors Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi (for Babel) and Cate Blanchett (for Notes on a Scandal). And “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” for Best Song? Like, thanks, but… no thanks. We suppose it was nice to acknowledge Eddie Murphy for his Jimmy “Thunder” Early, but the Academy could’ve stopped at Djimon Hounsou for Blood Diamond last year and we would’ve been good.
For whatever reason, Oscar voters have been really conciliatory to Black Hollywood lately —maybe too conciliatory.
We always tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow when any institution starts handing out what look like reparations. Was the Academy so sorry for passing over Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen Jones or failing to nominate Diana Sands for A Raisin in the Sun or Diahann Carroll for Claudine–or any number of compelling Black performers from years gone by–that they’re making up for it by inviting Chris Rock to come verbally flog them for a few hours and letting Three 6 Mafia bemoan the tribulations of pimpdom? And do they feel like they’ve leveled the playing field quite enough, providing us with a triumvirate of Black Best Actors since 2001?
It’s a Catch-22. We can no longer say that the Academy “owes” black people continued prolific consideration, not when they’ve “given” black actors 17 nominations in the acting categories over the past seven years — it would look like whining. But we also can’t blithely concede that, perhaps, black actors underperformed this year, not when Don Cheadle nor Chiwetel Ejiofor were contenders for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor in one of the year’s better character films, Talk to Me. What about Jurnee Smollett’s “The tahme fo’ justice is AWL-WAYS RAT NOW!” monologue? If that’s not worth a nomination for Best Supporting Actress over Saoirse Ronan’s snotty characterization of Briony in the overrated Atonement, it’s unclear what is.
Maybe the Academy has filled its nomination quotas. Maybe they were backlogged on Blacks for years now, thought they’d do a bit of auditing in the new millennium, and ’07 marked the year they were all caught up. Is that why, this year, you’d be hard pressed to find a Black performance or Black film getting any play, aside from Ruby Dee’s turn as Mama Lucas in American Gangster (her first-ever nomination at age 83) and a shout-out to Norbit (yeah, you read right. Norbit.) for Best Achievement in Make-up? We’ll have to see how things go in the upcoming few years, but don’t be surprised if our representation starts to decline. Admittedly, this writer would be willing to make the sacrifice if it meant one to three nods a year for deserving Black artists (rather than the superfluous eight or nine of questionable merit we’ve been getting), tempered with one or two nods a year by other deserving minority artists (Asians and Latinos have always received less Oscar shine than African-Americans).