‘Selma’ Oscar Snubs: Did Voters Have “Racial Fatigue”?

reginald-hudlinby Reginald Hudlin

(this article originally appeared in January 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter)

I hate whining.

Ironically, when I was asked to write about the Oscar “whiteout,” I was in a planning meeting for the NAACP Image Awards. For those who don’t know, the NAACP created the Image Awards almost 50 years ago in response to the lack of recognition of black talent in front of and behind the camera in mainstream (white) awards shows. You’d think this show wouldn’t be needed by now, but that’s clearly not the case.

Was there Oscar-worthy work in Selma that was overlooked? Absolutely! Why did it happen? One obvious problem is that not enough screeners were sent to the voters. And regardless of race, every Oscar year is full of heartbreaking overlooks of worthy performances and filmmaking. The unknowable question is whether the same voters who supported 12 Years a Slave had racial fatigue after supporting a black film last year. But in a year with a cascading series of racial controversies in Hollywood, the lack of black nominees highlights a bigger problem.

Articles decrying the lack of black presence in the Oscars is an annual event. Every once in a while there will be a miracle like 12 Years a Slave winning big, or Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Sidney Poitier all winning Oscars. Those exceptional anecdotes don’t make up for the tiny percentages of black and brown people working in entertainment.

Why is our business so behind the rest of the country? It’s easier for a black person to become president of the United States than it is to be president of a movie studio. In the ruthless world of the Fortune 500, there are now black chairmen or CEOs at American Express, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Merck and Xerox. When it comes to executive vps, managing directors and other feeder positions for future CEOs, the entertainment business can’t compare to the banking world, which is perceived to be a far more conservative environment.

Given the shrinking white population in this country, the lack of people of color in the suites and on the screens is just bad business.

In the 1950s, Hollywood was reluctant to make movies with black stars because Southern distributors wouldn’t support them. Now the South is one of the biggest markets for black entertainment product. But the problem still isn’t solved because in the 21st century, Hollywood is reluctant to make movies with black stars because the international market won’t support them.

Samuel L. Jackson told me a story about talking with a distributor in Japan who was telling him how he doesn’t “play” there because no one knew who he was. But as they walked down the streets of Tokyo, Japanese people kept stopping them, excited to see Jackson in the flesh! The executive did not register the irony.

So how do we make things better? By taking action at every point of the food chain.

I know the Academy has already been working very hard to diversify its membership. My agency is bringing more people of color through its internship program. I hope other institutions do the same. Corporations should look at their vendor relationships and do business with companies owned by people of color. Make diversity a metric in annual bonuses.

When three of the biggest new TV shows of the year have black casts and producers, it would be prudent for other networks to follow their lead. It would be prudent for more films to emulate the multicultural casting of the Fast and Furious series, which is more successful with each installment.

And it would be great if the phrase “black film” wasn’t just used when a movie makes less than $100 million. When a movie with a black lead makes more than that, they aren’t black movies but “Will Smith movies” or “Denzel Washington movies” or “Kevin Hart movies.” If a movie makes enough money, then color goes away. It’s kinda like how some people think Egypt isn’t a part of Africa.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., we can all make a difference if we believe the time for action is now.