A Brief History of Slavery at the Academy Awards (or 5 Films That Prove Oscar is Terrified By A Difficult History)
by J.F. Sargent
After I saw Django Unchained for the first time, I jokingly tweeted that it was going to be funny when a bunch of white people get nominated for Academy Awards for this movie about slavery. Then the Academy Award nominations came out, and it became less of a joke and more an eerily accurate prediction.
I’m not telling you that to give you the impression that my twitter feed is magical or that following me will make your life immeasurably better (even though it is, and it will), just to remind you that the Oscars aren’t really about the best or most important movies, performances, or artistic accomplishments, which is why when you look at a history of the winners you’ll see a curious absence of classics like Die Hard or Star Wars, and an overabundance of moviesthatsuck. Because instead of telling us what movies were the best, the Oscars tell us what movies made the Academy feel the most warm and safe.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when looking at how the Academy treats movies about slavery. They don’t want a smart, artistic analysis that properly explores the darker aspects of the fact that the United States contributed to a centuries-long genocide. They want movies that gloss over the pain and suffering. At best, they want movies that cut right to the part where white people get forgiven. Which is why we see the following trend in this brief list of every movie to deal directly with slavery and get an academy award nomination:
5. Gone With the Wind (1939)
What Is It? Gone With the Wind is a romantic story about a woman named Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) who, through her strong will and indomitable spirit, manages to survive and prosper despite suffering the supreme misfortune of being born a wealthy and attractive white woman in the Southern United States.
Oscars Won: Pretty much all of them, but the most important is Hattie McDaniel’s win of Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy. She’s not only the first African American to win the award, she’s the first ever nominated.
What Was The Academy Thinking: “That Mammy character sure is happy! That’s the way I want to remember slavery.”
Mammy is pretty much the quintessential example of the “cheerful slave.” She’s dumb, devoted to Scarlett, incapable of surviving on her own, and very, very happy with her lot in life. She’s not only okay with being a piece of property and not a person, it’s actually the way she’d prefer to live.
That’s not to say that McDaniel doesn’t do an amazing job. Despite my snarkiness here, I know that Gone With the Wind is a great and important movie. But with this move, the Academy set a standard for the type of black role that they’re willing to acknowledge, and eighty years later it doesn’t seem like this standard has changed much at all.
4. Glory (1989)
What is it? Glory tells the story of the US’s first all-black military company. It stars Matthew Broderick as Robert Gould Shaw, their commanding officer.
Oscars Won: Notably, Denzel Washington for Best Supporting Actor.
What The Academy Was Thinking: “I sure am glad Denzel Washington has forgiven us for slavery!”
Glory is about the suffering that comes with being a slave – or at least it should’ve been. It’s set during the Civil War and is focused on an all black company. There’s a scene with Frederick Freaking Douglas. It couldn’t be more about Slavery – and yet star of the film is the white Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick.
Arguably that’s a problem with the film, not the Academy’s take on it – but if you think they deserve props for acknowledging Washington before they acknowledge Broderick, then you’ve never seen Glory. The character arc for Washington’s character (Private Trip) can basically be described as “Angry black man learns not to hate white people.” The point of his character is to learn to love and respect the white man who is his boss.
The sheer lack of self-perception is incredible. This is a movie about how much it sucks to be black in this period of history and how terribly white people treated the former slaves, but the Academy thought the most important part was black people being convinced to forgive white people. That’s the major theme they chose to acknowledge. That one.
It’s also probably worth mentioning that with this award, fifty years after Gone With The Wind, Washington was only the fourth black actor to win an Academy Award at all.
3. Amistad (1997)
What is it? Le Amistad was a Spanish Slave-Ship that was subject to an 1839 uprising that resulted in the deaths of the majority of the ship’s crew and human cargo, as well as the rebels’ eventual capture by the US Military. The movie is about the legal battle that happened afterwards.
Oscars Won: Sir Anthony Hopkins for his role as John Quincy Adams.
What Was The Academy Thinking: “This movie made me sad. Anthony Hopkins is old, and that is also sad. Let us give him an award.”
The best thing about Amistad is that it pays attention to the relatively-obvious but inexplicably-ignored reality that Africans had lives and a history before they were brough to America and became slaves. That, actually, is part of what makes the genocide that was slavery so bad. This truly comes through in Djimon Honsou’s performance, which is unlike anything ever seen in a movie that the Academy has chosen to acknowledge. But he has a strong accent, and he’s, like, angry a lot. So the academy brushed it over in favor of giving Anthony Hopkins some props for doing a good job playing an American President. Again.
2. Beloved (1998)
What is It? The film of Toni Morrison’s Pullitzer Prize winning novel tells a story about black Americans living in Cincinnati after the Civil War.
Oscars Won: Costume Design
What Was The Academy Thinking?: “I really liked the stuff that I saw on screen, but it definitely wasn’t the strong black characters who didn’t take shit from white people. It must’ve been something else. Do we give awards for scenery? No? How about costumes?”
This is just weird. Beloved is nowhere near as good as The Color Purple, which Steven Spielberg also directed just a few years earlier, but the latter didn’t win anything despite being far more widely lauded. It’s like the Academy knew they had done something wrong by ignoring such a great movie, and were trying to make up for it in the least convincing and most half-assed way possible.
1. Django Unchained
What is it?: Quentin Tarantino’s quest to make a mythic western hero for black American men stars Jamie Foxx as an escaped slave who returns to the south to wreak havoc, revenge, and rescue his wife from vicious slave owners.
Oscars Won: None, yet, but Christoph Waltz has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his starring role. The movie’s also been mentioned for Best Picture (which it might deserve but, since it’s up against topical pieces like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, probably won’t get), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing and Best Cinematography,
What the Academy Was Thinking: “My favorite part of this movie was the white guy who was so noble that he didn’t even murder any black characters. Let’s give him an award for being not racist, just like us.”
This has got to be the most insane example on this list. I think Foxx’s performance was nuanced and great, but there are really smart people who disagree with me, so whatever. But the Academy can’t be blind to the trend they’re continuing here, and the message they’re sending with these nominations. Django Unchained is brutally, unapologetically, brilliantly focused on the experience of slavery from the eyes of a slave. Waltz is a great actor, but his character in this film is just “Hans Landa, But a Good Guy This Time.” The Academy nominated him because he’s an heroic white guy who doesn’t push any white-guilt buttons.
The fact that they chose to acknowledge him over every black actor – especially Samuel L. Jackson, who is a permanent fixture in American culture and turns in the performance of a goddamn lifetime – doesn’t even seem like a mistake anymore. It just seems downright cocky.