February 27 2017
Frank Bruni’s dream has come true. In his breathless New York Times column about the Oscar nominations earlier this week, he wondered whether three black women could possibly be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. “That would hardly make up for all the oversights past. But it would be cause for celebration nonetheless.”
Bruni, like the rest of Hollywood and the media that covers it, has been giddy with the possibility that the Academy Awards this year would be diverse enough to compensate for the fact that in 2015 and 2016 there were no minority actors or actresses nominated in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories.
This year, seven of the 20 actors and actresses named are black. From OscarsSoWhite to this in a year: Who knew racial progress could happen so fast?
But the fact that there are so many black actors nominated is not really a sign of much. In 1968, two black women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Is that a sign that America was a more racially tolerant place than it was in 2016? In 1986, three black actresses were nominated for “The Color Purple.” Had Hollywood simply moved backwards by 1996 when there were no black actors or actresses nominated? Of course not.
The folks judging movies in Hollywood represent a tiny sliver of America. And while last year’s awards were laughably “so white,” the larger movie industry today is definitely not. The two most highly paid actors last year according to Forbes were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jackie Chan. Johnson, who made $64.5 million between June 2015 and 2016, thanks to his roles in the “Fast & Furious” franchise and “San Andreas,” displaced Robert Downey Jr. at the top spot. And that was before taking into account the former pro-wrestler’s earnings from voicing a role in the Disney hit “Moana.”
There were no front-page stories about how Johnson had broken new barriers in Hollywood, about how the movie industry — and the movie-going public — had finally started to make up for its racist past. That’s because this wasn’t even the first time that a black man was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Will Smith did it in 2008. And has continued to rake it in ever since. He made $100 million from the 2012 movie “Men in Black 3,” tying Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise for the largest amount made by an actor for a single movie and losing out only to Keanu Reeves for “The Matrix.” Unlike the Oscars, though, when you finish in second place, you still walk away with $100 million.
Long before Denzel Washington won his Oscar in 2002 for “Training Day,” he was also regularly among the top-grossing stars in Hollywood. Long before the Hollywood elites voted, America voted — with its feet.
The list of highly paid movie actresses is not quite as diverse. Among the Forbes top 10 are actually Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress whom American audiences might remember from “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and Deepika Padukone, a popular Bollywood star. No doubt, cultural critics will have their theories about the reasons that black women have not broken this barrier (though given that Melissa McCarthy ranks No. 2, I’m reluctant to put much stock in the idea that traditional notions of beauty are the deciding factor).
Indeed, before we hear about intersectional feminism, it might be worth a look at the small screen. Television has historically been the great equalizer in entertainment. From the “Jeffersons” to “The Cosby Show” to “Black-ish,” it is clear that even a show with an all-black cast can command large white audiences. Indeed, among the most highly paid female actresses in TV, according to Forbes, are Sofia Vergara, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington and Priyanka Chopra.
But the fare on television is much more reflective of American tastes than movies — certainly compared to the movies that are up for Academy Awards this year. In 2016, when he hosted the awards ceremony, Chris Rock did some “man on the street” interviews with black people on the South Side of Chicago. The joke, of course, was that the men and women he interviewed had seen plenty of movies but none of those “white movies” that the Academy had nominated. The truth, though, is that Rock could have done the same interviews in most of Middle America and no one would have seen “Trumbo” or “Spotlight.”
Hollywood’s interests are not America’s interests. The academy is a self-congratulatory club that pats itself on the back for the advancement of civil rights or a variety of other issues. But rarely do they have an effect on the general opinions or tastes of ordinary Americans.
Last year, Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, responded to calls for a boycott of the Oscars by noting that under the leadership of its new African-American president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, “the academy is moving closer to getting in step with the real world.” Meanwhile, most Americans were already there.