The End of the Black Oscars

Feb. 23, 2007— -- By now you're probably aware that the Oscars are upon us. If you've picked up a newspaper or flipped on the TV, you already know that preparations are in full force, predictions are flying, and that the gale-force whirlwind that is the Academy Awards has begun.

You may think you know all there is to know about Hollywood's biggest night, but there is one Oscar night tradition you probably haven't heard about: the Black Oscars.

Tired of being overlooked by the Academy Awards, African-American actors, directors, producers and executives launched the Black Oscars more than two decades ago to celebrate black performers. A secret ceremony held on the eve of Oscar night, the Black Oscars -- which includes such participants as James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Whitney Houston and Will Smith -- was traditionally a time for black Hollywood to honor its own.

But not this year.

For the first time in more than 25 years, the Friends of the Black Oscars, the secretive group that sponsored the event, decided that the black Oscars have finally become obsolete. Since 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took home best actor and best actress statuettes, African-American actors and actresses have consistently had a more significant presence in the race for Oscar.

This year a record-breaking five African-American actors and actresses -- Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Will Smith and Djimon Hounsou -- were nominated. In the words of a member of the Friends of the Black Oscars board, "This year, the Black Oscars will be at Kodak."

"I often used to enjoy the fact that I could name all the black Oscar winners and do it rather quickly because there weren't that many of them. It's getting harder and harder," said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

While Hollywood's African-American community acknowledges that strides toward equality have been made in the past decade, some remain critical of the Academy and the film industry for their failure to acknowledge black directors, producers and executives as well.

"If you want to talk about the playing field being level, then we have to have black executives in prominent positions in the studios. We have to have powerful black agents, we have to have significant black producers, significant black writers, prominent black directors and until that happens, the playing field is not level," said Boyd.

In the past few years, black actors and actresses have had more of a presence on the Kodak stage, but Oscar glory is not the be all, end all for black Hollywood. What many critics argue is that the largely white Academy "rewards black actors for roles that reinforce stereotypes -- the angry black man, the noble slave, the sexualized black woman -- rather than challenge them."

Without a doubt, most of this year's nominees fit that profile. With the exception of Will Smith's depiction of a man striving after the American dream, Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan president Idi Amin, Eddie Murphy's and Jennifer Hudson's performances in a movie that centered on black history, music and culture, and Djimon Hounsou's role as a Mende fisherman in Sierra Leone, all played explicitly "black" roles.

"It just so happens that now you're getting films about historical figures. In a film about Idi Amin, the actor playing the main role is going to be a black actor. You can't get a white actor to play Idi Amin. You can't get a white actor to play Ray Charles," . Boyd explained.

"The problem for black actors is that the roles are still relatively limited," he said. "So instead of being able to capitalize on the success of winning an Oscar, a lot of black actors find themselves searching for roles that don't exist. I mean Halle Berry has, for the most part, done nothing since winning an Oscar. … The roles haven't been there and, I think, if they're not there for Halle Berry then any other black woman in Hollywood really is in trouble."

This is not to say that African-American actors are not proud of the work they are doing or that they do not value the recognition and their increasing power within the industry. Certainly, the canceling of an event meant to honor those who were not being acknowledged is a momentous occasion and testament to the increasing level of camaraderie among the members of the Academy.

"When you deal with a body like the Academy, members get older, new members come in, and at a certain point, there's a generational shift," said Boyd. "And when that generational shift happens, you know a new group of individuals from a different era come to power. And those individuals bring with them their tastes, which may be different than the generation that preceded them. It would appear that as of late, Hollywood has gotten to be much more hip."