Edited out of the Oscars


WASHINGTON -- Just about everyone is talking about the beauty, grace and wonder of "Sense and Sensibility," the movie nominated for an Academy Award as "best picture." Director Ang Lee, who is of Asian descent, was not nominated.

And the title tune from the hit "Waiting to Exhale," sung by Whitney Houston and produced by Babyface, was the nation's No. 1 hit for several weeks, yet received no Oscar nomination even though it sold more copies than any songs nominated.

By now I've become so accustomed to African-Americans being under-represented in the Oscars that I hardly noticed the absence of blacks among this year's nominees. Expect the worst, is my motto, and you won't be disappointed.

But this year it turns out that I am not alone. In its issue dated March 18, People magazine publishes a cover story that blows the lid off the notion that non-whites are getting an even break in so-called "liberal" Hollywood. After a four-month team investigation, the magazine reports that, in proportion to our percentage of the population, blacks, in particular, continue to be under-represented, underpaid and under-recognized.

While African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population and 25 percent of the movie-going audience, the magazine reports:

Only one of this year's 166 Academy Award nominees is African-American the director of a live-action short film.

Of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 5,043 members, who nominate and choose the Oscar winners, fewer than 200 or 3 percent are African-American.

Only 2.3 percent of the Directors Guild, 2.6 percent of the Writers Guild and less than 2 percent of Local 44, a 4,000-member union of backstage personnel, are black. Because of nepotism and work rules, it can take longer for a black aspirant to become a makeup artist than a brain surgeon.

"Racism going on"

Even though Quincy Jones will be directing this year's Oscar telecast from backstage while Whoopi Goldberg hosts, he told People he was appalled that Ang Lee and so many other non-white talents were passed up. "There's a lot of racism going on, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't," he said.

Is it racism or is it coincidence? Many would love to agree with three-time Oscar nominee Morgan ("Driving Miss Daisy") Freeman that Hollywood movie decisions are "predicated completely on money," not race.

But even "bankable" blacks have a hard time breaking through lasting prejudices. These prejudices actually inhibit Hollywood from making more money.

Part of it is simply the industry's old-boys network, a paradox amply symbolized by the dinner party President Clinton attended last month at the home of record and movie boss David Geffen. The guests, who included other moguls like Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, were all white and all male, according to People.

Some will find it hard to believe that a subtle form of white supremacy continues to permeate Hollywood, even in this, the era of Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Whitney Houston and other bankable black stars. White skin still has its privileges in most areas of American life. Why should the movies be any different?

Ironically, the presence of so many happy scenes of people of different races getting along on the screen deludes many of us into thinking the races are getting along better than they really are. Unfortunately, real life does not reflect "reel life" in this regard. Despite the prattling by Bob Dole and others that Hollywood is an irredeemably "liberal" industry, it is actually a very conservative institution. The film industry is, compared to other media, a steamboat among speedboats. It does not change direction unless pushed by tremendous, irresistible forces, like the power of the dollar.

Remember that the next time you go to the movies.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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