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Why ‘Viola Davis was robbed’ of an Academy Award

Published Mar 9, 2012 10:04 PM

Based on a talk given at a March 2 Workers World forum in New York City. Hear the entire talk at www.workers.tv.

Viola Davis before Oscar ceremony.

At the 84th Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 26, a stunning, brilliant female actor, Viola Davis, lost to another brilliant female actor, Meryl Streep, for the best lead actress award. Davis is African American and Streep is white. Due to the predominance of social media and communication, this development fueled not just a national debate but a worldwide debate. There were many tweets saying, “Viola Davis was robbed.”

Davis was actually considered a front-runner to become only the second African-American actor to win the best actress award. She won the Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Critics awards in the same category at the end of January for her role in “The Help.” Her co-star, Octavia Spencer, won the SAG and BC awards for best supporting actress as well as this year’s Academy Award in the same category. SAG also bestowed its best ensemble award for the cast of “The Help,” composed of Black and white female actors.

Nekisha Cooper & Dee Rees accept award,
Feb. 25.

Davis and Spencer played domestic workers based on the best-selling book, “The Help,” which came out in 2009. The book focuses on recollections by a white author, Kathryn Stockett, who secretly conducted interviews with African-American domestic workers about their experiences working in white homes — including her own — in Jackson, Miss., during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The director of the film, Tate Taylor, and the film’s producers are also white.

The book and the movie have ignited a lot of debate about how race relations — including how Black characters are portrayed — are interpreted through the skewed prism of white writers, directors and producers. While there has been a lot of criticism of the film, there has also been praise for it. For instance, when Octavia Spencer won the Oscar, a multinational group of women from the National Domestic Workers Alliance cheered while watching the ceremony on TV. When Streep won, they all moaned and groaned.

Davis and Spencer have both publicly defended their choices of playing domestic workers, saying they wanted to show the humanity of their characters who were denied their voices due to Southern racism. Davis agonized for three months before taking the role because of the criticism she anticipated for playing a domestic worker. In numerous interviews the actor has stated the difficulty she has had in being offered multifaceted lead roles because of being “dark-skinned.” She describes the roles she is offered as mainly negative stereotypes of Black women in urban areas.

Putting aside the broad spectrum of views about this film, it has helped to shine a bright light on important broader social issues, which Viola Davis stated in her acceptance speech at the BC ceremony: “Racism and sexism are about all of us, not just people of color.”

‘A good, old white boys’ club’

On Feb. 19, the Los Angeles Times published an extensive study entitled “Unmasking the Academy: Oscar Voters Overwhelmingly White, Male,” which exposed institutionalized racism. The article stated that out of the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male. The eight-month study was based on interviews of Academy members and their representatives which helped to confirm the identity of 89 percent of the present membership.

Even Viola Davis — herself an Academy member — stated she wasn’t sure who else was in the Academy since there is no public list of members.

The Academy includes selected perople who work in front of and behind the camera. Only 2 percent are Black and less than 2 percent are Latino/a. Is it any wonder there have only been five African-American actors in the Academy’s 84-year history to win best lead actor awards? They are Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker; Halle Berry is the only African- American woman. This is truly a travesty.

Out of the Academy’s 15 branches, whites compose 90 percent of each branch, except for the acting branch, which is 88 percent white. The Academy’s executive and writer branches are a startling 98 percent white. The cinematography and visual effects branches are 95 percent white.

Even though globalization has had a tremendous impact on the movie industry, no statistics in this study reflect the number of immigrants within the Academy, which, one can surmise, is probably very, very minute

Sexism is also rampant within the Academy. According to the Writers Guild of America, women made up a mere 17 percent of employed writers in 2011. Martha Lauzen, in a San Diego State University study, stated that in 2011, women made up 18 percent and 9 percent of the Academy’s producer and director branches, respectively.

The median age of all Academy voters is 62. Fourteen percent of voters are under the age of 50. The study went on to say that Academy membership is for life, whether members still work or not. Hundreds have not worked in many years, though close to 50 percent of Academy actors have worked within the past two years.

Out of the 43 members of the Academy’s powerful Board of Governors, only six are women, one of whom is the only person of color on the board.

The Academy reflects the racism and sexism that is prevalent throughout U.S. capitalist society, from those who control Wall Street’s profits to those who dominate the big-business parties of the Democrats and Republicans. The Academy has only paid lip service to promoting affirmative action throughout the film industry for people of color and women since it was founded in 1927.

Upon hearing about the Los Angeles Times’ expose of the Academy, Denzel Washington stated, "If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black. If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?" (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 19)

The Academy also has a history of reflecting reactionary political positions. For instance, Streep’s portrayal of the Reaganite, anti-worker Thatcher was an attempt to rehabilitate the former British leader from a moral point of view.

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman director to win an Oscar for her pro-Iraq war film, “The Hurt Locker.” Bigelow is currently shooting a film based on the Navy Seals’ capture of Osama bin-Laden.

People of color and women involved in TV production do not fare any better. According to a report released by the Directors Guild of America on Sept. 16, based on 2,600 episodes that appeared in primetime across broadcast, basic cable and premium cable during the 2010-2011 season, white males directed 77 percent of all episodes; white females 11 percent; Black males 11 percent and Black females just 1 percent. For one-hour series, white males directed 80 percent of shows; and for half-hour series, white males directed 74 percent.

Few roles, fewer nominations

It has been a long, uphill battle for African-American actors, female and male, to play nonstereotypical roles, much less to be recognized by the Academy for those roles. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1940. Her best supporting actress Oscar was for playing a stereotypical house slave in the pro-Confederate movie, “Gone with the Wind,” which won other Oscars, including best picture. McDaniel, a great dramatic actor, was forced to play demeaning roles as domestic workers during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood” until her death in 1952.

It took 24 years after McDaniel’s win until Sidney Poitier won the Oscar as lead actor in 1963’s “Lilies of the Fields.” His Oscar had less to do with playing a handy man helping white nuns build a church than it reflected the social impact of the Civil Rights movement, including in the entertainment industry.

Just five years earlier, Poitier was nominated in the same category for playing an escaped prisoner in an anti-racist drama, “The Defiant Ones.” He wasn’t even nominated for his role in the 1967 Oscar-winning film, “In the Heat of the Night,” where he played a Philadelphia police officer assigned to solve a murder in Mississippi. In that film, Poitier’s character slaps a racist plantation owner in retaliation for being slapped first. Why didn’t Poitier win for one of these powerful roles?

Then, there is the brilliant Denzel Washington, who won the best lead actor Oscar in 2002 for playing a corrupt cop in 2001’s “Training Day.” This win was really a token gesture to cover up the fact that Washington should have won Oscars for his powerful portrayals of Malcolm X in the film of that name in 1992 and jailed boxer Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane” in 1999. That Washington did not win for portraying real-life political figures was a conscious snub made by the white, male-dominated Academy. Will Smith was also nominated in 2002 for playing Muhammad Ali in “Ali.”

The situation is even worse for African-American female actors. It took 47 years for Berry to win the first Oscar for lead actress after Dorothy Dandridge became the first Black woman to be nominated in the same category in 1955 for “Carmen Jones.” Berry won for her role in “Monster’s Ball,” portraying a woman who had an affair with a white jailer who executed her spouse.

The Oscar-nominated Black female actors who were passed over for best lead Oscars beside Dandridge and Davis include Angela Bassett, Diana Ross and the legendary Cicely Tyson for her beautiful portrayal of a sharecropper’s spouse in “Sounder.”

And what about a film like “Pariah,” which didn’t receive any recognition from the Academy? This 2007 independent film was directed and written by Dee Rees, a Black woman, and tells the story of a Black teenager, played by Adepero Oduye, who comes out as a lesbian. The film, shot on a $500,000 budget, won the 2011 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes award. It took four years to be released to the public. The producers include director Spike Lee and a Black woman producer, Nekisha Cooper.

Another snub during this year’s Oscars is that Demián Bichir, a Mexican-American actor, did not win the best actor award for his moving role in “A Better Life” as an undocumented immigrant living with his son in Los Angeles.

This kind of racism is no mistake or unfortunate coincidence. It is a reflection of the broader, historic issue of racism within the Academy, which reflects the entire Hollywood film industry, especially those who make the critical decisions of which films are made and which ones don’t get made.

Who controls the purse strings?

African-American actor Danny Glover, who has been on the front lines in support of the Cuban Five, is preparing to direct his first film on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave and leader of the Haitian revolution that overthrew the French slavocracy (1791-1804). Glover has publicly stated that it has been very difficult to raise millions of dollars for this important film because producers complained there were “no white heroes” in it. (AFP, July 25) Fortunately, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has helped raise the bulk of the funds for Glover’s project, which is scheduled to be filmed in Venezuela this year.

So the issue of racism inside the Academy is an extension of racism in Hollywood from the top down. This is about representation in front of and behind the camera and who controls the resources to get good, quality films made like the one Glover is doing. Spike Lee had to rely on influential Black cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson and others to raise the bulk of the money needed to make “Malcolm X,” because Warner Brothers was not forthcoming with funding, especially given the subject matter.

The great Lena Horne wanted to play the coveted role of Julie, a so-called mulatto, in the movie musical “Show Boat,” but she was turned down. The role went instead to Ava Gardner, who darkened her face with makeup. Horne stated this snub was a devastating blow to her acting career.

In 2009, the Academy bestowed white actor Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination for imitating a Black man in black face. This year’s emcee of the Academy Awards, Billy Crystal, a white man, portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in black face. These are just a few examples of the racist indignities woven into the fabric of Hollywood and its institutions.

In the short run, there needs to be a radical shake-up within Hollywood, including of the Academy ranks to make it more multinational in front of and behind the camera. In the long run, only with a revolutionary transformation of society — a socialist society based on human needs not profits — will those with talent and without talent be able to express themselves freely without the constraints of bigotry in all areas of life including culture.