Black filmmakers discouraged by lack of Oscar-nominated African-Americans

The Oscars can sometimes be predictable, and sometimes only seem to be. But there is one person you definitely will not see picking up a major award on Feb. 27.

A famous African-American.

Any famous African-American.

For the first time since the 2000 Oscars — the year of "Gladiator" — it’s an all-white race. Director, actor, actress — even the supporting-performance categories are monochromatic. (The closest you might come is Hailee Steinfeld, of "True Grit," whose mother is reportedly of white, Asian and African-American descent.)

"I don’t want to make this just another whine," says Warrington Hudlin, head of New York’s Black Filmmaker Foundation (and veteran producer of projects like "Boomerang" and TV’s "Bebe’s Kids"). "There are ebbs and flows, I know. But I was very disappointed this year."

"It’s really discouraging," agrees Tim Gordon, a Washington, D.C., film journalist and chief of the Foundation for the Advancement of African-Americans in Film. "I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, though; There are probably a lot of factors."

There are certainly a number of theories. That, with the Obama election won, Hollywood has forgotten about race. That plenty of Oscar-caliber talents (Will Smith, Spike Lee) weren’t very active this year. That most of the films blacks did make were, in Gordon’s words, simply "gosh-darn awful."

But the most obvious explanation? Look at the best-picture list. And even with the expanded roster of 10 nominees, not one had a single, sizable role for an African-American. How can black actors be nominated if they’re not being cast?


The problem, the numbers suggest, begins behind the camera.

According to the Directors Guild of America — which doesn’t track employment — only about 10 percent of its membership isn’t white. At the Writer’s Guild of America, all minorities, combined, account for about 6 percent of screenplays, a figure that hasn’t changed in years.

"Actually, I’m working on a new report on that now," says Darnell M. Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies. "And it has changed. It’s gone down to about 5 percent."

It’s an old-boy situation and hardly new (women, taken separately, are even more underrepresented), but it leads to an obvious problem. If people tend to write what they know, then that overwhelmingly white majority of screenwriters aren’t going to write black characters.

"Actually, I’m beginning to like it better when they just leave us out," says Miriam J. Petty, an assistant professor of visual and performing arts at Rutgers and a member of the Newark Black Film Festival’s selection committee. "Because they so often get it wrong."

Unless they’re there to specifically talk about prejudice ("You never have white people sitting around in a movie talking about race," Petty says), black characters generally fill one of a few stereotypes. The "sassy" friend. The selfless caregiver. The villain. The whore. The clown.

"It’s unfortunate that there aren’t a variety of roles, and a lot of our members express that conflict," says Rebecca Yee, the Screen Actors Guild’s National Director of Diversity and Affirmative Action. "They don’t want to have to play to a stereotype. But they feel they should be able to play anything. And, you know, a paycheck is a paycheck."