Hollywood -- an Oscar blackout?

Posted: Mar 29, 2001 12:00 AM
Hollywood racist? A Los Angeles Times front-page article -- "Diversity in Oscars Still Elusive" -- yet again sounded the alarm. Times writer Lorenza Munoz says, "Last year, many in the African American community felt slighted when Denzel Washington did not win an Oscar for his performance in 'The Hurricane.'" She calls 1972 a "watershed year." Black actors received nominations for best actress (Diana Ross in "Lady Sings the Blues" and Cicely Tyson for "Sounder") and best actor (Paul Winfield for "Sounder"), and "Sounder" was nominated for best film. But, she notes, "Three decades later, it is evident that the promise of 1972 has not been fulfilled." Promise of 1972? After all, Munoz notes, since 1990, nonwhites received only 19 nominations in the top five categories. (Apparently, the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," nominated for both best foreign film and best film, didn't make her feel any better.) Is this about racism? Well, to her credit, Munoz does not go that far. "The reasons 1972 has never been repeated," says Munoz, "are mainly driven by economics and race. Hollywood increasingly looks to foreign investors for financing of film production. Those investors, mainly from Europe and Japan, prefer casts with European Americans as leading characters." Never mind that Will Smith recently starred in "Men in Black," grossing $337 million in international sales. And Eddie Murphy's movie "Coming to America," made for $39 million with a virtually all-black cast, pulled in a whopping $350 million in foreign sales. Darn those exceptions that keep messing up the rule! People magazine, in March 1996, wrote an alarmist Hollywood-is-racist cover story called "Hollywood Blackout." The magazine said, "The reality, however, is that when African-Americans ... come knocking on Hollywood's door, the response too often is still 'Whites Only.'" Quincy Jones, a prominent player in Hollywood, said, "There's a lot of racism going on, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't." Just how bad are things in Hollywood for nonwhites? Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American actors got 21 percent of commercial jobs in 1995, compared with 10.8 percent in 1985. Of these jobs, blacks filled more than half the roles in 1995, or 12 percent of all commercial jobs, a percentage commensurate with the black population in America. Minority Markets Alert, a New York newsletter, found blacks' images, including voiceovers and music, depicted in 38 percent of commercials in the local 1995 New York market. And the Times' Munoz notes that ethnic minorities comprise 19 percent of the Screen Actors Guild, and 8 percent of the Directors Guild. So, despite the continued employment of minorities in Hollywood, the rap against the entertainment industry continues -- that Hollywood refuses to honor black achievement with Oscars. But look at "black films." Many are comedies, horror films or teen flicks, which are typically overlooked by the Academy, irrespective of the race of the performers. Poor Hollywood, it can't win. The community gives more money to the Democratic Party, while relentlessly championing virtually every cutting-edge liberal social issue, whether affirmative action, outreach to gays or taxing cigarettes to raise money for children's programs. When Jesse Jackson accuses Hollywood of racism -- boom -- he gets an audience. When Oscar-winner Julia Roberts says, "Republican in the dictionary comes just after 'reptile' and just before 'repugnant'" -- not a problem. But when it comes to Oscars, the same Hollywood liberals suddenly retreat to the rear, don white sheets and refuse to nominate, let alone award, Oscars for black performers. Puh-leeze. What actor worked the most in the 1990s, appearing in 36 films? Black actor Samuel L. Jackson. And during the decade, who was the third most frequently employed film actor? Whoopi Goldberg. Black three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman says, "I don't think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They're predicated completely on money." Black comic-actor Chris Tucker appeared in the high-grossing film "Rush Hour." Tucker, too, fails to view Hollywood through race-tinted glasses: "I always have thought in terms of the largest possible audience. I want everyone to relate to what I am doing. And that's been easy, because in my career I haven't experienced any racism." Shhhh. Don't tell Jesse. At one time, minorities complained that Hollywood refused to employ them. Now, it's Hollywood stiffs them when it comes to Oscar statuettes. As far as awards go, every year some film, some producer, some director feels stiffed. But the bottom line is, Hollywood is about the bottom line. Black Entertainment Television recently decided not to renew the contract of Tavis Smiley, its high-profile host. Calling Smiley's ratings flat, a BET spokesperson said, "Ratings and viewership are critical to the success of any program. At the end of the day it's all about eyes in front of the TV sets. All of us, BET included, measure ourselves that way." Say it ain't so. Hollywood is about ... ratings?