Whitest Oscars in 10 Years?

Gregg Kilday and Matthew Belloni, Hollywood Reporter, September 30, 2010

Will white be the only color on the red carpet at the 83rd Academy Awards?

Although Oscar contenders are just lining up at the starting gate for the annual run for the gold, there’s a real possibility that for the first time since the 73rd Oscars 10 years ago, there will be no black nominees in any of the acting categories at the February ceremony. In fact, there are virtually no minorities in any of the major categories among the early lists of awards hopefuls.

“It’s more difficult than ever to get a picture made with any serious subject matter–let alone an ethnic-themed one,” John Singleton, an Academy member and two-time Oscar nominee for 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” said of the current filmmaking environment, which has in turn narrowed Oscar’s choices.

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This year, the early lineup, in a review of contenders by THR, is striking for its near-total absence of actors of color.

“The King’s Speech” focuses on the very proper British royal family; “Black Swan” is set among pale-skinned New York ballerinas; “127 Hours” details the survival saga of one (white) dude; “The Social Network,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Hereafter” and “The Town” all feature fairly homogeneously Caucasian casts and key creative talent.

Belgian actress Cecile de France, an early contender for “Hereafter,” and Spaniard Javier Bardem, Cannes’ best actor winner for “Biutiful,” are in the mix, at least lending a couple of foreign accents. And it’s still possible, of course, that a yet un-hyped movie could surface that will change the complexion of the race.

But several awards consultants said they can’t figure out exactly where it would come from.

Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” is one of the few remaining question marks, since Lionsgate has not yet begun screening the movie, which opens Nov. 5. The cast includes one past Oscar winner in Whoopi Goldberg along with Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad and Janet Jackson.

But while it marks a serious turn for Perry, who’s known for his commercial comedies, it’s unclear whether any of the individual performances could emerge from the ensemble to claim a nomination. (Jackson’s best shot at a nom may be in the song category, since she’s also co-writer of the tune “Nothing,” which is on the soundtrack of Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too?”)

“Perry is currently the only African-American with an ongoing concern at a studio, and he continues to, as black people say, ‘Hold it down’ with pictures that draw a core black audience as well as others,” Singleton observed. “But, sadly, this is a sector that most of the rest of the industry has neglected as of late with middling comedies.”

If the Oscar nominations, which will be revealed Jan. 25, do go to an all-white cast of actors, that’s sure to put the Academy in an uncomfortable position since it’s been making real efforts to ensure its own membership is more diverse.

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But when it comes to bestowing Oscars, the Academy is at the mercy of whatever films are available.

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“It feels kind of circumstantial,” one member of Hollywood’s black community said about this year’s lack of black contenders. “Maybe you could get some studio people to address it, but then there are no black studio executives, which is another story.”

The last time the Academy was forced to confront the issue was the 68th Academy Awards, which took place in 1996. Although Quincy Jones served as the show’s producer that year and Goldberg was host, the Rev. Jesse Jackson used the awards to protest “the paucity of nominations of people of color [which] is directly related to the lack of films featuring the talents of people of color.” While he didn’t target the actual ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he called for a viewer boycott and protests at ABC affiliates.

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Over the past decade, the issue has subsided, although the number of minority nominees has often depended on just one or two releases that changed the face of the noms dramatically. For example, 2006’s globe-trotting “Babel” secured supporting actress noms for Mexico’s Barraza and Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi. They became part of one of Oscar’s most diverse group of acting nominees, joining Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), Will Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), Penelope Cruz (“Volver”), Djimon Honsou (“Blood Diamond”) and both Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy from “Dreamgirls.”

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Minority actors certainly are finding work: They are featured prominently in nearly half of 2010’s top 20 domestic-grossers, whether it’s Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson lending their muscle to “Iron Man 2,” Eddie Murphy voicing Donkey in “Shrek Forever After,” young Jaden Smith following in his dad Will’s shoes in “Karate Kid” with the help of Jackie Chan or Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah popping up in “Valentine’s Day.” But those aren’t the kind of movies that generally win the Academy’s respect.

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“Diverse films are being made, but they are not necessarily being picked up for distribution,” said Rebecca Yee, SAG national director and senior EEO counsel for affirmative action and diversity. Under SAG’s low budget agreements, producers are allowed to increase overall budgets if they demonstrate they are achieving diversity goals. “A lot of producers come to us to use those incentives,” Yee explained, but if their completed films don’t attract the interest of distributors, “it’s hard for them to get their movies seen.”

“African-American-themed projects are now being relegated to specialty pictures–as they were in the ’80s before Spike Lee,” Singleton said.

Hollywood might not be taking full advantage of the potential audience: According to the MPAA, Hispanics comprise 15% of the U.S. population, but they buy 21% of the movie tickets; blacks, 12% of the population, buy another 11%.

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Those percentages are not likely to be reflected at this year’s Oscars. Right now, barring a surprise entry in the race, the major categories are in danger of looking like a whites-only club.

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