Did any black actor win an award that night, while I studied my frozen reflection in the glass of our theater’s candy stand? Despite the fact that Roots had just broken every television broadcast record, the answer is no — although by that time, a determined trickle of actors, beginning with Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), had begun to drip on the (conscious? unconscious?) stone of the movie business’ racial bias. James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Ethel Waters (Pinky, 1949), Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life, 1959), Sidney Portier (Lilies of the Field, 1963), Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones, 1954), Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972), the list goes on. Editors and other technical craftspeople don’t begin to appear in that list until 1969, when Hugh Robertson won for editing Midnight Cowboy, a movie I remember seeing at the St. George Theatre before I was involved in going broke there as a manager.
Thirty-nine years later, new landscapes, fresh faces, but the cast of characters in Hollywood who decide what (largely white) picture gets made and, beyond that, a similar cast who pick the winners of those sleek golden statuettes, has changed very little.
In 1977, Spike Lee, one of the leaders of the recent proposed Oscar-night boycott, was still six years away from completing his first student film. At our theater, where I was in the business of growing up, a group of well-intended white folk, of which I was one, spent the better part of that year discovering what a mixed bag, in every sense, our neighborhood really was. We’d begun with the intention of booking live rock concerts and showing art movies, a failed business that nonetheless functioned as a kind of community center — where neighborhood kids fled the streets to watch Jaws, Taxi Driver, The Omen, The Exorcist, Shaft and whatever (mostly second- or third-run) “action” movies our reluctant booking agent could pry loose from Warner and Columbia and the like.
It embarrasses me now that, of the hundred or so titles we showed, only Shaft, Cooley High, Blazing Saddles and Lady Sings the Blues might have been said to serve our wider audience in some kind of balanced way. When Do The Right Thing came on screen twelve years later, I remember wishing we had our theater back, to show it.
Here’s an idea to support the boycott: why not join me and grab the (very short) list of black Oscar winners--and create your own private film festival?