Why the Oscars Don’t Deserve People of Color


This could be an undermining revolution and Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer was one of those Russians who loathed revolutions. So he got a few friends together and said they needed some formula to make unions unnecessary. It would be a way of settling disputes before they arose… So Mr. Mayer and his pals decided they needed an organization to handle labor problems at the studio without having to get into the union thing, and it would be a public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time. They liked the scheme and wondered what to call this organization. It needed a word with class, history, distinction . . . ? In a few more days they had fleshed it out: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The “Arts and Sciences” touch was genius because it made you think the Academy had always been there, arranged by God and Harvard and Albert Einstein.

-David Thomson, The House That Mr. Mayer Built: Inside the Union-Busting Birth of the Academy Awards 

The latest fiasco in Hollywood, a city populated by people who are perpetually up their own behinds and removed from reality, is the slate of Oscar nominees, which could double as a roster for the caucasian invasion. There is a boycott, Twitter hashtag, and the predictable slew of statements and rebuttals coming from various personalities. Michael Caine and Charlotte Rampling have been particularly offensive, Danny DeVito has been been brutally honest in calling the whole show racist, and Spike Lee has been, well, Spike.

But the fact is that no one is saying the obvious thing: the Academy does not deserve the great performers it consistently passes over.

Let us begin with just an examination of the nominees. One of the films nominated for Best Documentary Feature is WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, which I have previously called TRIUMPH OF THE WILL 2.0. Nominated for Best Documentary Short is CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH. For those who are not savvy, Lanzmann’s documentary SHOAH is arguably one of the foundational cornerstones of what Dr. Norman Finkelstein called “The Holocaust Industry”. Hollywood itself understands this phenomenon very well, that is why a studio executive once said with much irony “There’s no business like Shoah business”. The late Dr. Edward Said said in an episode of the British television show EXILES in 1988 of Lanzmann’s film “This is the legitimization of what has happened to us as a people, the Palestinians.”

In other words, we are dealing with an awards ceremony that is honoring through nomination one picture that celebrates unrepentant neo-fascism and a stab at neoliberal hegemony in Eastern Europe while another glorifies a man who famously broke with the French Communist Party over Israel and has spent his career conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Even the much-lauded TRUMBO, a film I enjoyed and which is nominated for Best Picture, falters in its inability to critique SPARTACUS and EXODUS, the two films that helped break the black list, for their Zionist ideological coordinates. Why look for validation in such company?

But there is another issue at play, a deeper one. If one reviews the times that African people have won the Oscar, be it for Best Actor/Actress or in the Supporting categories, they all have been roles where the character is demeaned and victimized. Even Sidney Poitier’s win in 1963 was for the anti-Communist LILLIES OF THE FIELD, a picture produced just over ten years after Paul Robeson had his passport revoked for being pro-Soviet. Hattie McDaniel won an award for playing a character actually named Mammy. Denzel Washington did not win for playing Malcolm X, he instead earned a golden statue once for a role where he literally is whipped for being insolent and another where he plays an over-sexed, corrupt, drug-peddling policeman who gets killed in a hail of bullets from his mobster paymasters at the end. Jamie Foxx won his statue for portraying Ray Charles as an over-sexed dope head. And Forest Whitaker had to eat human flesh on screen to get the gold.

Whoopi Goldberg won for playing a con artist while Halle Berry was even more dubious in character when she took the win. Lupita Nyong’o’s win in 2013 was for getting brutalized and raped on screen in a film Armond White called torture porn that white supremacists could love because of how it de-contextualized and objectified slavery as a historical once-upon-a-time instead of one form of white supremacist capitalism that continues to victimize and torture people of color, moving from the plantation-industrial to prison-industrial complex. And while SELMA’s Best Picture snub was controversial, what no one thought to mention in that discourse was what Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report highlighted , “Oprah insults Black SNCC civil rights heroes, but she protects the white, rich Kennedys.” I doubt one must be André Bazin to notice a pattern here.

When one understands that the Oscars were founded as pro-capitalist, then a certain disparity becomes obvious. As Dr. Tony Monteiro and others have emphasized, the struggle for African American emancipation has always been inherently anti-capitalist in part because this struggle began as a battle against the most brutal form of capitalism in human history, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This is why great minds like Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all completed their journeys through white supremacy and ended up embracing anti-capitalism in some form or another. Some chose the Communist Party, a movement that, despite its flaws, was always one of the most militant anti-racist political parties in American history. In the case of Du Bois, he embraced Communism after years with the NAACP because of disappointment with its pro-capital tendencies. His application for membership in the CPUSA is worth quoting:

On this first day of October 1961, I am applying for admission to membership in the Communist Party of the United States. I have been long and slow in coming to this conclusion, but at last my mind is settled…I attended meetings of the Socialist Party and considered myself a Socialist. On my return to America, I taught and studies for sixteen years. I explored the theory of socialism and studied the organized social life of American Negroes; but still I neither read nor heard much of Marxism. Then I came to New York as an official of the new NAACP and editor of The Crisis magazine. The NAACP was capitalist-oriented and expected support from rich philanthropists. But it had a strong socialist element in its leadership in persons like Mary Ovington, William English Walling and Charles Edward Russell. Following their advice, I joined the Socialist Party in 1911. I knew nothing of practical socialist politics and in the campaign on 1912 I found myself unwilling to vote for the Socialist ticket, but advised Negroes to vote for Wilson. This was contrary to Socialist Party rules and consequently I resigned from the Socialist Party. For the next twenty years I tried to develop a political way of life for myself and my people. I attacked the Democrats and Republicans for monopoly and disenfranchisement of Negroes; I attacked the Socialists for trying to segregate Southern Negro members; I praised the racial attitudes of the Communists, but opposed their tactics in the case of the Scottsboro Boys and their advocacy of a Negro state. At the same time, I began the study Karl Marx and the Communists; I read Das Kapital and other Communist literature; I hailed the Russian Revolution of 1917, but was puzzled by the contradictory news from Russia. Finally in 1926, I began a new effort; I visited the Communist lands. I went to the Soviet Union in 1926, 1936, 1949 and 1959; I saw the nation develop. I visited East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. I spent ten weeks in China, traveling all over the land. Then this summer, I rested a month in Rumania. I was early convinced that socialism was an excellent way of life, but I thought it might be reached by various methods. For Russia, I was convinced she had chosen the only way open to her at the time. I saw Scandinavia choosing a different method, halfway between socialism and capitalism. In the United States, I saw Consumers Cooperation as a path from capitalism to socialism, while in England, France and Germany developed in the same direction in their own way. After the Depression and the Second World War, I was disillusioned. The progressive movement in the United States failed. The Cold War started. Capitalism called communism a crime. Today I have reached my conclusion: Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all. Communism-the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute-this is the only way of human life. It is a difficult and hard end to reach, it has and will make mistakes, but today it marches triumphantly on in education and science, in home and food, with increased freedom of thought and deliverance from dogma. In the end communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day.

The operative question is not whether the Academy can engage in neoliberal identity politics games to appease. Instead, it is worth asking whether it can engage in the kind of liberation politics that Du Bois and those like him have engaged in for generations. One should not contemplate boycotting the Oscars this year, instead they must wonder why they have not done so in other years.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.