Diversity in Black History Month
Every February at my school we would celebrate Black History Month with assemblies and presentations about Black History. At first, the presentations consisted mostly of documentaries featuring news footage of the struggle for civil rights. Every year we’d see white police beating black people in Selma or Montgomery or elsewhere. And every year our black students would come out of the assemblies visibly and understandably angered by the injustices they had seen.
I went to our principal and asked for some diversity in the presentations. I pointed out that just showing beatings and police dogs and firehoses used on demonstrators didn’t tell the whole picture. It gave the impression that all white people hated all black people which just wasn’t and isn’t true. If it were, we’d still be legally segregated or worse.
My students didn’t need to be convinced that racial prejudice is real – they’d seen it first hand all around them. What they needed was inspiration not more hatred. What they needed was a glimpse of those heroes, white and black, who worked to break down racial barriers. That included Lyndon Johnson as well as Thurgood Marshall, Branch Rickey as well as Jackie Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt as well as the Tuskegee Airmen. This was not to imply that the struggle for equal treatment had or has been won. It was intended to show what worked. It was intended to show that the struggle goes on and that only through cooperation of all parties could the forces of prejudice be overcome. And a diverse program was also intended to teach rational judgement because sometimes it isn’t only about race.
Don’t Boycott the Oscars
As of this writing (January/February 2016) there has been a lot of discussion of the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards and what to do about it. There has even been a strident call to boycott the Oscars. I think a boycott is not the answer. Those who would boycott seem to be trying to make this a racial or moral issue when it is more of a business issue and popularity contest.
It’s not about morality.
Why aren’t those concerned with diversity complaining about the lack of diversity in the NBA? Why are there no Cubans on the Miami Heat? Why are there no Irish on the Boston Celtics? Boston Celtics – there’s a misnomer if ever there was one. Fielding a predominately black team in ‘Bean Town’ and calling it the Boston Celtics makes as much sense as fielding a predominately white team in ‘The Big Apple’ and calling it the New York Negros!
You know the answer to my question about why there aren’t more Cubans, or Irish in the NBA. The answer is money! People pay for excitement not racial diversity. Sports and the movies are businesses.
I think the diversity needs of the acting community would best be met by a careful analysis of what it takes to get nominated or to win an Oscar. To paraphrase a popular movie, “If you make it, Oscar will come.”
Winning (or being nominated for) an Oscar depends on four key elements: business, timing, popularity and critical acclaim. Critical acclaim is nice but it’s the least important so I won’t go into it here. Yes, the movie has to have some critical appeal but many movies the critics love are not always well received at the box office. Business is more important than critical acclaim.
Business – that’s entertainment!
Making money isn’t always the road to the Oscars but it is important for voting because it means people who don’t get movies for free or get paid to watch movies are seeing the movie. That creates buzz and incentive for Academy members to pay enough attention to vote for it. This is why critical acclaim is not always the most important issue. Critics get paid to go to the movies. For me there are many critical triumphs that are too depressing to bother watching. I (and many others) go to the movies to be entertained.
Producers are looking to make money not necessarily to be politically correct. Look at sports. In 1947 (7 years before Brown v. Board of Education) Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. Why? Because he (Rickey) wanted to field the best team he could. Because teams that win make money. Yes he also wanted to break down racial barriers but he didn’t just go out and find any old black guy just for diversity. He hired the best player he could get.
In 1950 (4 years before Brown v. Board of Education) the NBA broke its color barrier and hired Harold Hunter, Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd.
Hattie McDaniels, the first black actor to win an Oscar, won her Academy Award in 1940 (7 years before baseball integrated, 10 years before basketball integrated and 14 years before Brown v. Board of Education)! I mention Brown v. Board of Education as a way of comparison. Movies and sports integrated voluntarily. Reluctantly for some, and not soon enough for others, however they didn’t need a law to force them to integrate. The Federal government had to step in to integrate schools. But sports and movies make money – schools do not.
Timing and Popularity
Timing and popularity go together. A popular movie released at the wrong time gets passed over. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the most beloved movies of all time, but the only Oscar it won was for inventing a new type of movie snow. Why didn’t it win the Oscar for Best Picture? It was released in 1946 and lost out to The Best Years of Our Lives, an important but at times disturbing film about WWII GIs adjusting to civilian life – a very popular and timely topic at its release. It’s A Wonderful Life didn’t win due to unfortunate timing.
Many films that are classics which in other years might have won Best Picture (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach) were released in 1939 and had to compete with Gone With the Wind for top honors. Bad luck timing. Timing and popularity can also affect an actor’s fortunes.
Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal of quietly shy Celie Harris in The Color Purple was wonderful and deserved the Academy Award for Best Actress. But in 1985 she was an unknown in motion pictures. I always felt that Whoopi should have won an Emmy for her role as Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988). She exuded power with a quiet voice and a dazzling smile – not easy to do. But although both were strong characters well played, Celie and Guinan were quiet and great acting in a quiet role is seldom rewarded.
By 1990 Whoopi was well known and business, timing and popularity came together in Ghost. It did great business. The Color Purple took in $142 million at the box office while Ghost took in $505 million – i.e. more people saw it. Oda Mae Brown could have been any color and she was loud fun – easy to remember. One could argue that Celie was a more demanding role than Oda Mae. In playing Celie, Whoopi was playing against type, whereas Oda Mae was more of her natural personality. So what? Both are good performances and deserve credit.
So make a movie that does great box office and has universal appeal and be sure to release it at the right time of year and during the right year. And black or white, if you make it, Oscar will come.