In honor of Black History Month, we take a look back into African-American history in the film industry and how representation has come a very long way, from cliched stereotypes to the real-life struggles inherent in the lives of African-Americans in the U.S. today.
Looking first at award ceremonies and actors, last year’s Oscars ceremony was harshly criticized when the Academy failed to nominate a single person of color for best actor and actress. The awards trended with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of representation.
The awards began in 1929 but took 10 years for the Academy to nominate its first black actress, Hattie McDaniel, for best supporting role in “Gone with the Wind.” The next black nominee was Ethel Waters, a decade after McDaniel.
From a statistical chart compiled by Eliza Berman and David Johnson at Time Labs, of the 1,668 nominations since the ceremony began, only 56 of these actors have been non-white.
This past year, the industry has taken a step forward in the nomination of movies that feature African-American stories and casts. “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight” feature Oscar-nominated actors, actresses and producers. With stories ranging in topics of gender discrimination, civil rights, race, struggle and family dynamics, this year’s nominations include Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Naomi Harris, each up for best actor, actress or supporting role.
Ryan Thaxton, writer for The Daily Reveille, wrote that the improvement of this year’s nominees are due to the large increase of minority voters in the Academy. The minority members want to see a story that directly connects to them.
Donna Gigliotti, four-time Oscar-nominated producer, stated in an interview about the story behind “Hidden Figures,” “It goes to the heart of what I say over and over again, and that is, frankly, that diversity pays — if you make movies that look like the rest of the country. People want to see their own stories up on the big screen.”
Gigliotti has also been nominated in the past for her work in “Shakespeare In Love,” “The Reader,” “Silver Lining’s Playbook” and now “Hidden Figures.”
With minority groups now making up between 35–45 percent of the country’s demographic, Hollywood is finally starting to consider making more stories that are representing America’s minority stories. While this year’s Oscar nominations have taken a step forward, the industry still has a long way to go.
As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, tweeted after the nominations last year, “One year of film reflecting the Black Experience, does not make up for 80 yrs (sic) of under representation of ALL groups.”