When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, revealing that not one black actor was in the running, the resulting furor touched on the performances that critics said should have been considered: What about Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation”? Michael B. Jordan in “Creed”? Will Smith in “Concussion,” or one of the stars of “Straight Outta Compton”?
The uproar over #OscarsSoWhite made me curious. What does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences value in black performance? Black artists have been nominated for best actress or actor on 30 occasions, for work spanning 28 films. Over the last few weeks, I watched all of them.
These movies have a lot in common, not least that most were directed by white men. Only three were directed by black men and none by women. Perhaps these numbers aren’t surprising, given the well-known demographics of the film industry. Other numbers are more eye-opening.
Consider: In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so. (The exception is Viola Davis, for the 2011 drama “The Help.”)
The first was Dorothy Dandridge, for “Carmen Jones” (1954). That musical drama, like the opera from which it derives, is mostly known as the story of a sexually rapacious young woman and her obsessive, ultimately murderous lover. But it’s also the story of a wily, prideful human running out of places to go. Late in the film, Carmen and her fugitive boyfriend hide out in a seedy Chicago apartment. There’s no money for rent, and soon they’ll be evicted. Carmen, who’s spent the movie working hard to seem carefree and fierce, tries her best to summon that look again as she sets out to scare up food and rent money.
Nearly every black best-actress nominee has faced a similar plight, right up through “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012), in which Quvenzhané Wallis played a little girl about to lose her home to a flood. No black woman has ever received a best-actress nomination for portraying an executive or even a character with a college degree. (Though Gabourey Sidibe’s character in “Precious,” from 2009, seems likely to get one eventually.)
All 10 performances for which black women have received best-actress nominations involve poor or lower-income characters, and half of those are penniless mothers. Two of the portrayals — Diana Ross’s incarnation of Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) and Angela Bassett’s depiction of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993) — are of singers who enjoy a measure of wealth at some point. But Holiday begins broke, and viewers know she’ll end up that way, while Tina Turner doesn’t have money of her own until the film’s last five minutes. The remaining characters are maids, sharecroppers, criminal-drifter types, impoverished housewives and destitute girls.
A few more commonalities to note: Seven of the 10 best-actress nominees played characters with absent or incarcerated husbands, boyfriends, or fathers. And six of the characters suffer physical abuse, with five of them being raped.
The academy has tended to honor black men for different sorts of roles, and it has honored them more often. Black men have been up for best actor 20 times, with four nominations going to Denzel Washington, three to Morgan Freeman, and two each to Sidney Poitier and Mr. Smith.
Thirteen of the recognized performances involve being arrested or incarcerated. Picture Chiwetel Ejiofor as the newly kidnapped Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” or Mr. Washington behind bars as Malcolm Little, soon to change his name to Malcolm X. (His other nominated characters all face arrest, even his corrupt detective Alonzo Harris, before he flees in the last few minutes of “Training Day.”) Picture the police bursting through the bedroom doors of Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in “Ray” (2004) or James Earl Jones’s Jack Jefferson in “The Great White Hope” (1970). Most of the films deliver these men into bondage with the best of intentions — so we may identify with them, and hate the injustices done them. Nevertheless, the images seem endlessly — and sadistically — repeated.
In 15 of the 20 films, the nominated performances involve violent or criminal behavior. It’s often justified or victimless — or, as with the boxers in “Ali” (2001), “The Hurricane” (1999) and “The Great White Hope,” part of a day at the office. These characters tend to end up in jail anyway. (When the crime is not victimless, as in “Training Day” or “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the perpetrators often never see the inside of a jail cell.)
Ten of the characters have a white buddy or counterpart — or, when it comes to “Lilies of the Field” (1963), a whole convent full of them. In most cases, the white counterpart is the apparent protagonist. Think of Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) or Ethan Hawke in “Training Day.”
Seven of the actors’ films feature no major black female characters. Seven of the characters abuse or mistreat women.
I shared these numbers with Dr. Todd Boyd, the author and professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He wasn’t impressed, but he also said the focus on the Oscars was misplaced. “The Oscars are a symptom,” he said, and not the illness itself.
The academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, in announcing changes intended to address #OscarsSoWhite, cited the film industry’s failure to produce movies with diverse casts, and Dr. Boyd made a similar point: “You have to backtrack and look at the kinds of movies that African-Americans have been cast in.”
And what kind is that?
These 28 films are full of enormous characters, men and women of world-historic or pop-cultural significance, people who face seemingly intolerable oppression with nigh-unimaginable resolve, characters who are victimized or who encounter and occasionally inflict cruelty.
What they’re not full of is characters who resemble ordinary people. And when such people do make an appearance, the camera tends to linger on the parts of their lives most likely to interest white Americans struggling to reckon with their country’s racist past. We learn all about Miss Daisy — her son, her childhood, her politics. But we hear only a sentence or two about the family of her driver (Morgan Freeman). Similarly, there’s a lot of information about Billy Bob Thornton’s Hank in “Monster’s Ball.” But watching Halle Berry as the bereft Leticia Musgrove, we see only her wretchedness, and her eventual rescue by a white man.
These are largely isolated characters, said Dr. Miriam J. Petty, an assistant professor in the department of radio, television and film at Northwestern University. “And they’re bound to the destinies of the white people with whom they appear in these films.”
It is not entirely surprising that so many of these nominees have portrayed the poor, imprisoned, great or tragic. The history of African-Americans contains many such people, and the academy loves history. Of the 10 most recent best-actor nominees, eight played historical figures. But the academy has never nominated a black leading actor for a role like Woody Grant in “Nebraska” (for which Bruce Dern was nominated in 2014) — an idiosyncratic person who is both fictional and unexceptional.
“If you had a film about an ordinary black guy — well, that might mean that he knows other black people,” Dr. Petty said. “Those black people might need to be in the movie, too. And then it’s a black film.”