"It's a great year for lesbians," Academy Awards co-host Anne Hathaway declared at the show's start on Sunday. After all, lesbian plotlines were central to films such as "The Kids Are All Right" and "Black Swan." To boot, the dad in "Toy Story 3" was mysteriously absent, Hathaway quipped. Did that signal an undercurrent of lesbianism, too? Hathaway was kidding, of course. But she managed to make her point: Lesbians took front and center in a pair of Oscar-nominated films this year.
The same can't be said for people of color. According to the New York Times, the 10 films nominated for best picture in 1940--the year Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar--featured more diversity than the 2011 best picture nominees. Writer Nsenga Burton of The Root noted that there's been a definitive racial shift at the Oscars.
"Last decade, we had groundbreaking nominations and wins: Halle Berry and Denzel Washington winning best actress and best actor awards in 2002 for 'Monster's Ball' and 'Training Day' respectively; Jamie Foxx's 2005 best actor win for his stunning performance in 'Ray;' Forest Whitaker's best actor win for 'The Last King of Scotland' in 2006; and Jennifer Hudson's best supporting actress win in 2007 for 'Dreamgirls.'"
And last year, of course, Mo'Nique and Geoffrey Fletcher won Oscars for best supporting actress and screenwriting, respectively for "Precious." Also, African-American documentarian Roger Ross Williams won an Oscar for his short "Music by Prudence." But this year, blacks and other minorities were pretty much missing in action at the Academy Awards--with the exception of Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress nominee for "True Grit." Steinfeld's reportedly part African American and Filipino.
So, why weren't people of color more of a presence at the 83rd Academy Awards? New York Times film reporters point out that during the past year, no high-profile biopics about blacks such as "Ray," "Ali" or "The Last King of Scotland" came out. Plus, the urban cinema released starred whites, not people of color. There's also the fact that over the past few decades, movies have become increasingly segregated. African American actors frequently star in films with all-black casts. But The Root's Teresa Wiltz argues that the African-American movies that premiered over the last 12 months did not warrant Oscar recognition. And she's not talking Tyler Perry fare here. She called the indie "Night Catches Us," which is about the Blank Panthers in Philadelphia, a "snooze." Moreover, Wiltz said other black indie films such as "Frankie & Alice" and "Mooz-lum" screened in so few theaters that the public lacked access to them. This indicates that black films need more distribution and financial backing. Take "Precious," for example. Without funding from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, the movie wouldn't have screened in many theaters. And if that had happened, it likely would have garnered no Oscars.
But Hollywood's whiteout, as New York Times film critics call it, won't only be solved by giving black films more financing and distribution. Actors of color need to be given opportunities to shine in mainstream films--and not in supporting roles, but as stars. Wiltz wonders, for instance, how come black Latina actress Zoe Saldana couldn't have landed the lead in "Black Swan?" Saldana, after all, is a trained ballet dancer. And what about the "Kids Are All Right?" Did both lesbians in the film have to be white? Couldn't one of them have been Asian American or Arab American or American Indian?