As award season kicks off with a fresh spate of omissions, we revisit the films where black auteurs and actors were overlooked
“Fuck ‘em,” Spike Lee said when asked about Selma’s snub at the 2015 Academy Awards. It’s a difficult sentiment to disagree with. It’s baffling to see Selma – the soaring portrayal of a key turning point in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement – nominated for Best Picture (great!) with only one other nomination – for Best Original Song (wut?). So, wait, Selma is good enough to be nominated for Best Picture, but not Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, any of the supporting categories, script, costume... Either the Academy thinks Common and John Legend’s “Glory” is a song so good it overcomes the relative lack of quality in the other major categories, or Selma doesn’t have a hope in Hollywood of taking home the trophy.
It means that – partly because of Selma’s underrepresentation, and partly because the Academy seems determined to ignore every other significant black contribution to cinema last year (nothing for Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying James Brown in Get On Up (2014)? Nothing for Chris Rock’s razor-sharp Top Five (2014) script?) – this year’s ceremony will be the whitest for almost 20 years. It’s not the first time the Academy has let down black filmmakers – far from it. Eddie Murphy’s going to do a quick (and amazing) intro, then we’ll get to the list.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON FOR PULP FICTION (1994)
Samuel L Jackson received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his iconic performance as hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. When the nominations were read out, he was the only actor to get a cheer from the crowd. But he lost out to Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s utterly forgettable Ed Wood (1994). The feeling was Landau won as it was ‘his time.’ It was a trophy for a career, not a performance.
But as Jackson put it after the fact: “I was thinking I didn’t know it was a thing where if you get nominated for a few times you automatically get one. I thought it was supposed to be about impact.”
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN MALCOLM X (1992)
We know, we know – Denzel has Oscars, but he’s missing the one he should absolutely have in his cabinet. In Malcolm X Denzel Washington transformed himself into one of the most recognisable black militants in history. The scale of his performance was astonishing – journeying from criminal to convert to Nation Of Islam minister, encompassing his pilgrimage to Mecca and a series of iconic speeches, over the course of a three and a half hour movie. Talk about impact.
Meanwhile, Al Pacino pricked about in Scent Of A Woman (1992) bellowing “Hoo ha!” at anyone in his general vicinity for 156 minutes. Guess who won the Best Actor award?
JOHN SINGLETON FOR BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
Disgracefully, it took until 1992 for the first black Best Director nomination – John Singleton for Boyz N The Hood. His award-worthy direction wasn’t enough to get his film a Best Picture nod though, obviously. After all, why would those two categories be connected in any way?
Just in case the sarcasm doesn’t translate, not only should his film have been nominated, it should have won. Boyz mainlined the zeitgeist to create an electrifying piece of art – one that turned the cinematic spotlight onto a section of the States ignored by generations. And, as it turned out, most of the Oscar voters.
GABOUREY SIDIBLE FOR PRECIOUS (2009)
Here’s how the hypothetical Academy Awards meetings allegedly went in 2009 in our imagination (that we’ve totally made up). “Okay guys, shall we give the Best Actress Oscar to one of the bravest, most soulful, intense, powerful, and astonishing performances we’ve ever seen, or shall we just give another one to our mate Kate Winslet because it’s been a while since she got one? Tough call. Which one of them is white?”
QUVENZHANE WALLIS FOR BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)
If the Academy Awards are supposed to reward the most impressive and impactful performances of the year, then Wallis should have been a shoo-in. No other actor had audiences as open-mouthed as the star of breakout indie hit Beasts Of The Southern Wild, her naturalistic performance the subject of a billion think-pieces.
She was the youngest Best Actress nominee in the history of the awards and should have been the youngest winner. But, mainly because most of the Academy votes come from old white people, the award went to an old white woman.
SIDNEY POITIER FOR IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1982)
Like Denzel, Sidney Poitier has won two Oscars – he was the first black man to win an Academy Award (in 1964 for Lilies In The Field) then in 2002 he got a lifetime achievement trophy – but we’re greedy and two isn’t enough.
Especially as, disgracefully, he wasn’t nominated for his titanic turn in In The Heat Of The Night. Instead, the Best Actor In A Leading Role nomination went to Rod Steiger, who wasn’t even the lead. Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs definitely was. It’s one of the most shameful overlooks in Oscar history, especially considering the film’s content.
ANGELA BASSETT OR LAURENCE FISHBURNE FOR WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (1993)
Another cheat, because we can’t choose between Bassett’s Tina Turner or Fishburne’s Ike Turner so we’re not going to. Both should have won for roles that weren’t so much performances as they were demonic possessions. At least Bassett won a Golden Globe for Turner – becoming the first African-American woman to win Best Actress at that ceremony. That the Globes waited until 1994 to reward a black woman tells us it’s probably made up of the same kind of old dudes who run the Oscars.
SPIKE LEE FOR DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Spike Lee has only been nominated for two Oscars, neither of them in the directing category. That’s a disgrace in itself. One of those nominations was for Best Screenplay for Do The Right Thing. It was a film they couldn’t possibly ignore – a comment on race relations in Brooklyn that was Shakespearian in its delivery. It didn’t win in its category – a film about whiny privileged kids did (Dead Poets Society) and it wasn’t acknowledged as the Best Picture it definitely was. What won in that category? Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
RYAN COOGLER, OCTAVIA SPENCER, OR MICHAEL B JORDAN FOR FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Winner of the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, given the Prix de l'Avenir d'Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and with director Ryan Coogler receiving several critics awards on the run up to the Oscars, /someone/ should’ve got an nomination for Fruitvale Station – but it was completely ignored by the Academy.
Nothing for Octavia Spencer, or Michael B Jordan – both stunning. The film’s based on the true story of Oscar Bart, a 22-year old black father shot down by police officers. It’s a harrowing, powerful, political piece. All the more reason it should have been acknowledged.
AVA DUVERNAY FOR SELMA (2015)
Back to 2015, and the fact that, perhaps most depressingly of all, if Ava DuVernay had received a much-deserved Best Director nomination for Selma she would have been the first black woman to be nominated in that category. Ever. Fuck you Oscars.