Looking to the Oscars for Inspiration
by Gabriel Wardell - Director of Group Marketing
Between the Crossroads of Change and The Movement Catches Fire exhibitions in Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement gallery, visitors to The Center pass through a doorway framed by two light boxes. The illuminated Life Magazine Covers showcase an iconic list of “Firsts and Court Cases Leading up to Brown vs. Board of Education,” honoring milestones like “1947: Jackie Robinson, first Negro Major League baseball player;” “1948: Alice Coachman, first Negro woman to win an Olympic gold medal;” “1949: Edward R. Dudley, first Negro ambassador of the United States, Jackie Robinson, first Negro to win an MVP award;” and “1956: Dorothy Dandridge is the first Negro woman nominated for Best Actress Academy Award, and to appear on the cover of Life Magazine,” to name a few.
Not included on the list? “First African American nominated for Best Director Academy Award.” That honor belongs to John Singleton, for Boyz N the Hood… in 1991. It would be another eighteen years before Lee Daniels became the second African American director nominated for Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire in 2009. This was the first (and only) time an African American director was nominated for directing a Best Picture nominee. (In 2012, Brit Steve McQueen was nominated for directing Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, but he lost out to Gravity helmer Alfonso Cuarón, who made history as the first Mexican-born Best Director winner.)
Much has been made about the apparent lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. In the Variety commentary “Barry Levinson on Oscar’s Racial Controversy,” the white male Oscar-winning director chalks-up the Academy’s sometime failure to recognize African American talent to “the strangeness of the voters’ taste, the process, or the simple fact that voting for the best in any area of filmmaking isn’t a science.” Citing Howard Hawks’ amazing career, for which he was only nominated once despite directing at least ten recognized masterpieces, or the case of 2012 where director Ben Affleck’s Argo won best picture even as the director was overlooked by the Academy, Levinson shrugs, “That’s the Academy.”
The Academy’s history of recognizing female directors is equally spare. Even as movies helmed by women—Children of a Lesser God (1986), Awakenings (1990), The Prince of Tides (1991), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), An Education (2009), The Kids are Alright (2010), Winter’s Bone (2010)—have been nominated for Best Picture, their female directors remained shut out. In the history of the Academy, only four women have been nominated for Best Director—Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigalow for The Hurt Locker (2009). That Bigalow is the first—and only—woman to win an Oscar for Best Director in 87 years suggests there’s more going on than just strangeness of taste.
The disproportionate number of lauded films for which the female director’s contributions has been overlooked is significant. This lack of nominations perpetuates a cycle, as these directors are denied access to numerous networking events staged by the Academy in the lead-up Awards themselves. They are also deprived the seasonal press opportunities and the prestige bump that accompanies a nod. In a business where perception is everything, a nomination is a badge of honor. Being shut out stalls the career development of a director.
Manohla Dargis discusses the lack of racial and gender diversity behind the lens of Hollywood productions in a recent New York Times think piece, Lights, Camera, Taking Action. She points out that the Director’s Guild “classifies women and male minorities under the general rubric of diversity, including its latest contract which stipulates that employers ‘shall work diligently and make good faith efforts to increase the number of networking racial and ethnic minority and women directors.”
This mandate, while well intentioned, might have the unintended consequence of falsely pitting women against male minorities, both of whom are woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership in Hollywood.
In Variety, Levinson rightly acknowledges “the lack of diversity in Hollywood.” His solution? “Young boys and girls of all colors …need to be helped, taught, educated, nurtured, and inspired.”
It is precisely for this reason that the Oscars ARE important.
For all their pomp and circumstance, and sturm und drang, and sound and fury, and glitz and glamour, the Academy Awards DO matter. Where else can a young girl of color find inspiration by seeing an African American woman recognized alongside her white male industry peers?