Academy Award, cinema, diversity, Eddie Murphy, Film, film industry, Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood, Lena Horne, Louis Gossett, motion picture industry, Movies, Oscars, PS 22, race relations, Sidney Poitier, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Everything You Need to Know About the Oscars — Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion

PS 22 Chorus at the Oscars

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…” – lyrics from “Over the Rainbow”

In a highly ironic and revelatory twist, the 83rd Academy Awards concluded with a performance of “Over the Rainbow” by Staten Island’s PS 22 Chorus.  At first glance, it appeared that the Oscars and the film industry valued youth and ethnic diversity.  However, with nary a person of color honored and The King’s Speech as the night’s big winner, that carefully presented picture of inclusion was nothing more than an illusion.  While some viewers gushed over the chorus’s “inspirational” performance, all I saw were white honorees smiling down benevolently at the group of predominantly Black and Latino singers.  Once again, I was reminded how little the Oscars and the film industry have progressed in regards to diversity.

“You look very appealing to a younger demographic.” – Anne Hathaway

Attempting to boost sagging ratings by attracting a younger audience, the best picture nominees were expanded from five to 10 in 2009.  The rationale was that more viewers would watch if popular films (translation: box office mega hits like The Hangover) were contenders for the top prize.  Demographics and ratings also influenced the selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year’s co-hosts.  The Social Network emerged as an early frontrunner for best picture.  However, reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch, The King’s Speech – a 1930’s period drama about Great Britain’s royalty (white, privileged and beyond wealthy) – triumphed over the more contemporary and youth-driven Inception and The Social Network.  Viewers who tuned in expecting a youth-oriented program discovered instead that it was business as usual.  The values and preferences of the Academy’s older voters prevailed.

“When they first came to me and said that they wanted me to present the award for best picture, my first reaction was to say, No!  I’m not going because they have not recognized Black people in the motion picture industry.” – Eddie Murphy

I remember watching the Oscars that night in 1988 and feeling very bored and disconnected.  Two things prevented me from channel surfing – the misplaced remote control and my comfortable chair.  Instead I flipped through magazines as the show dragged on and on.  Then Eddie Murphy came out to present the Best Picture Oscar and took the show to another level.  Crackin’ and fackin’ – mixing humor and truth – Murphy broke from the script and shared why he was reluctant to be there.  Suddenly, I felt better.  Not only did Murphy say something I could relate to, he had the audacity to express it at the program’s climactic moment.  His comments, particularly the timing, drew some criticism, but Murphy gained my deep admiration for his truthfulness.

“[My manager] said, ‘What are you talking about?  Black people win Oscars.’  I said Black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout the 60 years.  Hattie McDaniel won the first one.  Then Sidney Poitier won one and Lou Gossett won one…” – Eddie Murphy

Although additional black actors have won Oscars over the last 23 years, not much has changed systemically regarding diversity and how movies are green lighted.  Similar to the suggested influence of youth, ethnic diversity in the film industry is superficial.  Blacks and other minorities are still often portrayed stereotypically and/or in limited ways – when they’re visible, that is.  There were no people of color – insignificant or otherwise – to be found anywhere in The King’s Speech or among the nominees this year.  Instead the children from PS 22 were brought out to sing about rainbows and infinite possibilities.  The message was loud and clear:  Hollywood prefers to look inclusive without actually being that way.

This year’s memorial homage to Lena Horne also reflected the film industry’s brand of diversity.  During Horne’s heyday in the 1940’s, her musical numbers were filmed as segments that could be easily removed for segregated southern audiences without affecting the plot of the movie.  In other words, though Horne was in the movie, she was not an integral part.  Lena Horne’s isolation continued as she was “honored” individually with an introduction by a very grateful Halle Berry.  Horne was praised for her perseverance; however, a real tribute would have acknowledged the racial discrimination that Horne and other actors of color endured.  Instead of compensating for the unfulfilled potential of Horne’s film career, the tribute demonstrated the industry’s denial and/or unwillingness to address its inequities.

“And I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but, hey, what the heck.  I’ve got to say it.  Actually, I may not be in trouble because the way it’s been going, we get one about every 20 years.  So we ain’t due for one until about 2004, so this may all be blown over.” – Eddie Murphy

What will it take to see genuine diversity in Hollywood?  Change will not happen voluntarily or by moral persuasion.  Nor does the film industry take kindly to any type of critique.  Eddie Murphy was the front-runner for his 2006 supporting performance in Dreamgirls – having won all the major awards up to that point.  When his name was not pulled from the sacred envelope, many blamed the apparent snub on the ill-timed release of Norbit.  While Norbit didn’t help, I believe it was his candid observations back in 1988 that kept the golden statuette out of his grasp.  Murphy was well aware that his remarks could affect his chances of ever winning an Oscar, however, he underestimated how long it would take for it to be “blown over.”

“I have no regard for that kind of ceremony.  I just don’t think they know what they’re doing.  When you see who wins those things – or doesn’t win them – you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.” – Woody Allen

Will I watch the Oscars again next year?  Probably.  Old habits die hard.  I won’t be watching to see what or who is considered the best.  Those are decisions I can make for myself.  We are all capable of making those choices.  My interest in watching will be what’s going on in the film industry in regards to trends, innovations and political maneuvering.  I confess there’s a part of me that still hopes for some progressive changes.  However, I know better than to hold my breath.

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