The Oscars Still Don’t Know How to Judge Black Movies

Despite the efforts of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy Awards still has no idea how to judge Black actors, directors or filmmakers.
Actor Demi Singleton, right, actor and producer Will Smith and actor Saniyya Sidney pose on the red carpet at a Nov. 17 screening of "King Richard" in London.
Actor Demi Singleton, right, actor and producer Will Smith and actor Saniyya Sidney pose on the red carpet at a Nov. 17 screening of "King Richard" in London.
DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Oscar season is upon us.

On Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor what it deems to be the best films of 2021 during the 94th Academy Awards. After years of chastising the academy with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, this year we have a whopping four Black acting nominees ― Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) for best actor, and Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”) for best supporting actress ― and one film with a predominantly Black cast nominated for best picture (“King Richard”)!

Can you sense my sarcasm?

I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm about Black folks winning Academy Awards. I have learned that the Oscars either don’t care for Black art or simply don’t know how to judge Black work. Still, either way, I’ve learned what the Oscars have taught me: Black movies and those who work on them won’t be recognized for their contributions to the art, all the while knowing that winning one can set a filmmaker or actor up for life.

Let’s look at what can happen to an actor after winning one of the coveted awards. To win an actual Oscar, the actor doesn’t get anything. The statuette costs about $400 to make, and selling an Oscar in an auction will net you not much more than that. Yet, what can happen to a career is substantial.

Money Nation estimated that an actor could get a boost of up to 60% on their average salary after winning one. For example, Brad Pitt did not get much of a bump after he won best supporting actor for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but Halle Berry, who was Black famous in 2002 (but not yet famous-famous) when she won for lead actress in “Monster’s Ball,” went from an average salary of $118,750 before her magical night to $6.5 million after.

This means that winning an Oscar puts you in a very exclusive club. You make more money, your fame skyrockets and your projects can get easier to make. The streets of Hollywood are littered with pages of screenplays that never saw the light of day because the people who wanted to produce them could not get funding. Winning an Oscar can help with all that. Yet, there are not many people of color in the club.

The fact that after hundreds of thousands of movies have included Black actors, only 20 Black actors have won an Academy Award.

Though winning the coveted Oscar is often considered the high mark of one’s career, there are many examples of when the academy failed to recognize the best film made in a given year or even the best actor nominated.

I will never forgive the academy for failing to nominate “Do the Right Thing” for best picture. That year, the Oscar went to “Driving Miss Daisy.” (Ugh.) And who could forget the year that Al Pacino won for “Scent of a Woman” over the transfixing Denzel Washington as “Malcolm X”? Further, the Oscars have a history of recognizing films like “Green Book,” “The Blind Side” and “The Help” that place white people as the moral center of the stories, which are actually about Black people.

I have also grown wary of placing too much weight on the white assessment of Black expression. As we have learned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement (that was not just actively calling attention to the killing of Black folk by the police but also advocating for Black self-actualization), when we need the approval and validation of the dominant group for us to see our work as valuable, we engage in a vicious form of internalized racism — one that centers whiteness even as we engage in the subversive work of expressing Black brilliance. We are consistently outraged when white institutions do what they were created to do: marginalize people of color. That is what artistic institutions like this have always done. Never forget that the Oscars didn’t recognize Denzel Washington’s brilliance until he played a dirty cop in “Training Day,” for which he won for best lead actor.

Put simply, I don’t trust the Oscars to celebrate Black art. There will always be a preference given to white directors, white writers, white actors and white artisans. I would have no problem if the playing field were level, but an actor like Will Smith (who will most likely win for lead actor this year) or Viola Davis (who should have won for lead actress last year for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) has to give outstanding performances to be recognized, while all that people like Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep need to do is yawn in a movie and the academy will trip over itself to nominate them. Even last year, when the Oscars tried to set Chadwick Boseman up for the win, the voters got it wrong and gave it to Anthony Hopkins. That year, the Oscars closed the show with the lead actor award. They usually end with the best picture. Everyone assumed that was because the Oscar would be awarded posthumously to Boseman for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Even Hopkins took a moment to acknowledge Boseman in a video shared on his social media accounts a day after the award show.

“At 83 years of age, I did not expect to get this award. I really didn’t,” Hopkins said. “I’m very grateful to the Academy. Thank you. I want to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us far too early. And again, thank you all very much. I really did not expect this, so I feel very privileged and honored, thank you.”

As we learned from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, there have historically been significant issues about the voting body that decides Oscar winners. A 2012 Los Angeles Times report let America in on an open secret: 94% of Oscar voters at that time were white, and 77% of them were male. They have since changed that and invited more than 600 new members to join their ranks. This means there are more people of color (in 2020, the percentage was 84% white and 16% minority), but things are far from fixed. With this in mind, I don’t trust the Oscars to get it right when it comes to honoring Black films.

I am reminded of the words W.E.B. Du Bois reportedly wrote to eulogize Carter G. Woodson, the great African American scientist: “No white university ever recognized his work; no white scientific society ever honored him. Perhaps this was his greatest honor.”

It’s nice to be recognized, but if white institutions fail to appreciate the work of Black folks, we should not be outraged. We should consider it an honor.