Culture Plus: 50 Years Since Sidney – Where Are We Now?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. In his acceptance speech, Poitier referenced the “long journey” it took to get to that moment: it had taken 30 years for a black man to be nominated for the award, and another five for one to win. Poitier’s victory was widely praised as a sign of progress in Hollywood, as a door that had finally been opened.

Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker are, so far, the only men who have been able to walk through that “open” door.

This year, Chiwetel Ejiofor might join that list for his superb work in 12 Years a Slave. But Ejiofor’s status as the only black nominee in an otherwise all-white contest brings attention to an unfortunate fact about black actors at the Oscars: the Academy seems content with having only one (if any) black nominee per category.

In the Oscars’ 86-year history, only 20 Best Actor nominations have gone to black men. But even that number is misleadingly high, since those 20 nominations are shared among only 12 actors (Poitier was nominated twice, and Washington four times. Morgan Freeman has been nominated three times, but has yet to take home the award). For comparison, there have been 399 nominations split among 206 white men.

In years like this, with so many impressive performances from black actors, their near-total absence from the nominee list is conspicuous. Of the four black men who generated Oscar buzz for their performances (Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave) only one was nominated this month. The four other men who received nominations did great work, but it is hard to imagine that the Academy’s overwhelmingly white membership (94% of voters are white) did not affect the nomination process, and is not in some way accountable for the continued lack of a majority black category.

The four films that drew the most attention for black actors tell vastly different stories, but all share similar traits to films that have produced nominations for black actors in the past. The most commonly nominated roles for black men are historical figures (they account for 10 of 20 total nominations). Unlike white nominees, who have been recognized for portraying everyone from kings of England to Charlie Chaplin to J.M. Barrie, historical roles written for black actors are most often in stories about extreme suffering. Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel owner attempting to save people during the Rwandan genocide; Rubin Carter, a boxer falsely accused and imprisoned for murder; Solomon Northup, a free man forced into slavery. Other nominated roles are equally bleak: four nominations come from black men playing prisoners.

This all begs the question: why are black men only recognized for playing certain types of roles? These are inspirational stories, but the Academy should commend performances by black men who have not been beaten down. Instead of being considered for roles like Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Stanley Motss (Wag the Dog), or Rooster Cogburn (True Grit), black actors are pigeonholed into playing civil rights leaders, slaves, or criminals. Michael B. Jordan, the star of Fruitvale Station, recently spoke about his frustration with this trend, saying “I don’t want to play just the black guy in films. I want the scripts Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have time for. Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t available? Call me.”

So, how far have we come since Sidney? In terms of roles for black actors, some progress has been made. There were leading roles in films like Best Man Holiday, 12 Years a Slave, About Last Night, The Butler, 42, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Fruitvale Station, and no lack of think pieces written on the success of black-centric cinema. But the critical and box-office success achieved by these films did not translate into success this award season, a troubling but common trend as of late. In the six years between Denzel Washington’s momentous win in 2002 and Forrest Whitaker’s win in 2007, there were seven black men nominated for Best Actor, three of whom won. But since then, only three have been nominated, and unless Ejiofor beats out current favorite Matthew McConaughey, the drought of black Best Actor winners will continue into an eighth year.

The Academy has let progress slow, and it’s long past time to recognize the full range of talent Hollywood has to offer.

Featured image courtesy of http://goretro.blogspot.com/2010/12/go-retros-retro-hottie-of-month-sidney.html. 

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).


  1. This is laughable analysis. If you’re really suggesting that the reason the “About Last Night” remake and “The Best Man” sequel were ignored by Oscar voters, then you’re hilariously oblivious to the kind of movies that get nominations (not to mention that “About Last Night” came out two weeks ago). As for Mandela/Fruitvale Station/42, plenty of movies come out every year with widely praised lead performances, and then don’t receive acting nominations. That doesn’t mean it’s discrimination; only five men can get picked

    “Why are black men only recognized for playing certain types of roles?” you ask. You referenced Denzel Washington from Training Day (not a historical figure who has to endure suffering), but conveniently left out:

    Denzel in Flight (alcoholic drug addict, and please don’t say that this is an “inspirational story” because he was able to land the plane on coke)

    Terence Howard (playing a pimp/drug dealer in Hustle & Flow)

    Dexter Gordon in Round Midnight(alcoholic, abusive musician)

    Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got To Do With It (Ike Turner-enough said)

    Right there, that’s five out of 20 nominations that don’t conform to the “historical figure” and “victim of suffering” pattern, as if these haven’t been staples of every single Oscar season, regardless of whether the performers were black or white.

    The Supporting Actor category has also seen wins by Louis Gossett Jr. (sadistic Army Sergeant) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (arrogant, egotistic football player), while recent noinations have come for Samuel L. Jackson (hit man), Jamie Foxx (cab driver who gets taken hostage, but is hardly portrayed as a noble victim of extreme suffering) Eddie Murphy (hubristic, conceited, drug-addicted singer) and Barkhad Abdi as a pirate (not African-American, but neither is Ejiofor).

    Some of the above were nominated for playing real people, but that’s certainly not particular to black nominees. Three of this year’s four white Best Actor nominees (DiCaprio, Bale, and McConaughey) played real people (or characters inspired by real people, in Bale’s case) as well.

    Increased diversity is an admirable, uncontroversial goal, but its advocates often lose sight of the bigger picture. There approximately 100 million white men in America, and about 20 million black men, a five-to-one ratio. Crying “racism” on the sole grounds that one in five nominees in a category is black (a 4:1 ratio, incidentally) is absurd. It only serves to become a cry of “wolf” that strips deserved complaints of their legitimacy.

    • Hey Luke –

      I think you’ve misread many parts of my article.

      First, I don’t think “About Last Night” or “The Best Man Holiday” should have been nominated for Oscars. I merely mentioned them to point out that there have been some great roles (in incredibly successful movies) for men of color this year. You’re right to point out “About Last Night” is technically a 2014 release, and I apologize for the error.

      I’m interested that you say Mandela, Fruitvale Station, or 42 not being nominated “doesn’t mean it’s discrimination; only five men can get picked”. If it is not discrimination, what has caused such a discrepancy in nominations? Why are men nominated 20 times more likely to be white? The inequality is too large for to be attributed to random chance.

      As for what roles are recognized, I said that black actor are often pigeonholed into playing “civil rights leaders, slaves, or criminals”. I think the four performances you named (Washington in “Flight”, Howard in “Hustle and Flow”, Gordon in “Round Midnight”, and Fishburne as Ike Turner) definitely fall into the last category.

      You’re right in saying that white actors also often play characters based on real people, but as I said in my piece, those roles are much more varied than those given to black actors. White actors have played kings of England, politicians, writers, comedians, and scientists. Stories told about black historical figures are not as varied.

      Your last point features some incorrect math. I trust that you are correct as far as the ratios of white men to black men in the population, but saying that nominations are always broken down as 4 white actors: 1 black actor is incorrect, since less than 25% of Oscar ceremonies have featured a black nominee for Best Actor. It’s better to look at the all nominations, and I provided those numbers in the article. There have been 399 performances from white actors nominated, and 20 from black actors. That is a ratio of 20:1. I don’t think it is absurd to believe racism within the overwhelmingly white Academy may have caused such a huge discrepancy.

      Allison Hrabar
      Staff Writer
      The Daily Gazette

      • I brought your Mandela/42/Fruitvale Station reference into it because you asked why between those films, 12 Years A Slave, and The Butler, only one was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, as if every individual snub of the stars of those particular films indicated discrimination. Same with the math thing at the end: my 4:1 ratio at the end also referred to this year’s five nominees and you asking why Ejiofor was the only black man nominated as opposed to Elba/Whitaker/Michael B. Jordan alongside him. The idea of whether those past performances were “criminals” get a little subjective, but I’d just submit that, aside from Denzel’s character in Training Day, none of those other characters were primarily defined by their identities as criminals. Washington was playing a criminal first and foremost in Training Day; I don’t think the same is true for the other characters.

        You’re obviously interested in the machinations of these awards, so you’d be familiar with the whole range of reasons movies get short-changed by the Academy: The Butler and Fruitvale Station were summer releases (thus facing the need to regain momentum once award season started) and Mandela got mediocre reviews. Obviously, I’m speculating, but these suggestions no less likely than the assumption that a racial bias kept the voters from giving a nomination to any one black actor.

        Calling your analysis “laughable” was a dick move; I shouldn’t have done that, and I’m sorry. What I should have said was that this another in a long line of frustrating pieces that emphasize top-down solutions to problems that require bottom-up answers.

        Every year, after the Oscars are over, there are a slew of pieces complaining at how homogeneous the group of winners/nominees were (you jumped the gun by posting this before the ceremony). You even admit that this was a relatively good year for black leading men, but the central point seems to be this lament that it wasn’t reflected in awards season. These pieces all seem to imply that a viable solution is for the voting bodies behind these awards to nominate films or performances they don’t consider nomination-worthy simply in order to increase the diversity. That doesn’t help anyone, except for a handful of writers of pieces like these (who would promptly move on to the next under-represented minority on which to focus).

        You’re a woman, you clearly like movies, and you go to Swarthmore, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re familiar with a recent essay written by Lexi Alexander, a female director, on the state of gender diversity in Hollywood. The essay, even without proposing any tangible solutions struck a chord with a lot of people, and I think a big reason it did was because it emphasized system-wide (in this case, the major Hollywood studios) mandates to improve diversity as the most effective course of action. Once the foundation is built, that gives the rest of it (including the breadth of opportunities, and award nominations) the best shot at improvement.

        • Luke –

          You’ve bring up some good points that I wish I had addressed in the original piece.

          Before I get to that, I feel the need to make one last correction to protect my film-buff cred: I did not mention 42 as a film that garnered Oscar buzz for a Best Actor nomination, nor as one I think particularly deserved it. The movie deserves credit for introducing us to the lovely Nicole Beharie, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it otherwise.

          Moving forward:

          I know summer releases already fight an uphill battle for nominations, and I’d submit that Weinstein’s mildly disastrous campaign for Fruitvale also contributed to its shut-out. There’s no way to prove the summer release had any more influence than racial bias, but that’s part of why I wrote the piece: to show that the snubbing of black movies is a consistent trend, regardless of factors like release date, box office, or star power.

          It’s my failure that you think the piece implies that the solution to the whiteness of the Oscars is for “the voting bodies behind these awards to nominate films or performances they don’t consider nomination-worthy simply in order to increase the diversity”. My point is not that voters should nominate black actors because they’re black actors: I want them to nominate black actors because many of those black actors are GOOD. I think making the argument that Michael B Jordan’s performance was any less nomination worthy than Leo DiCaprio’s or Christian Bale’s is impossible. The former is undeniably talented, but the Academy chose to recognize other talented men instead, and that choice is made every year. I’m just frustrated that every time that choice is made, the talented men they choose the recognize are white.

          I agree that this problem needs a bottom-up solution, and based on your recommendation of Alexander’s essay, we seem to agree on what that solution is. We need more black people in positions of power in Hollywood: directors, producers, writers, etc. Having a more diverse creative force will result in more diverse stories and a more diverse Academy.

          That said, I don’t think a wave of pieces every winter lamenting a lack of diversity will work against that goal.

          Allison Hrabar
          Staff Writer
          The Daily Gazette

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