Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson are in the news for very different reasons. A movie set in the South, dealing with race relations, wins a best picture Oscar nomination even though the black star of the film does not. Its director ultimately is overlooked. The Oscars are shrouded in controversy over how it deals with that movie and its relation to real-life events. No, we’re not talking about Selma, the stirring film about the King-led 1965 march in Alabama for voting rights that has been nominated for a 2014 Best Picture Oscar.
We are looking back to April 10, 1968 — the 40th anniversary of the Academy Awards, which was historic for another major reason. That year the Oscar broadcast, scheduled originally for Monday, April 8, was postponed for two days out of respect for King, who had been assassinated on April 4. The funeral was scheduled for April 9, and several key people involved in the Oscars that year — Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll, Louis Armstrong and Rod Steiger chief among them — notified the Academy that they would not show up if it stuck to the April 8 date. Gregory Peck, then-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, convened an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors, who voted to take the then-unprecedented step of moving the show until after King’s funeral.
According to Inside Oscar — a great book that offers obsessive detail on the history of the Academy Awards — Davis went on The Tonight Show the day after King’s assassination and made his thoughts very clear. “I certainly think any black man should not appear. I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk To The Animals’ while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state,” he said, referring to the Oscar-nominated song from Doctor Dolittle that he was scheduled to perform during the ceremony. Peck also announced that the Governors Ball following the show would be scrapped and that there would be other changes.
“This will principally concern Bob Hope’s opening remarks,” he said at the time. “The writers will rewrite the script to conform with the dignity of the occasion.” Hope was right on board with the dictum and, in fact, noted he once was on the same airplane as King, who said he was a fan of Hope’s Oscar-hosting work and that he watched the broadcast with his family every year.
Not lost on anyone was the fact that two of the five best picture nominees that year dealt with racial issues. In The Heat Of The Night was a murder mystery about a big-city detective (Poitier) who investigates a case in a small Southern town only to be stymied by the bigoted white sheriff (Steiger). It would win Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, with Steiger taking Best Actor honors. However, the film’s director, Norman Jewison, was overlooked in favor of The Graduate’s Mike Nichols.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner — which also co-starred Poitier, as a brilliant physician engaged to a white woman — was up for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, and subsequently won Best Actress (for Katharine Hepburn) and Best Original Screenplay. In 1968, both screenplay awards went to race-themed films.
Ironically, Poitier, who had become the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar just four years earlier in 1963’s Lilies Of The Field, also was bypassed for a best actor nomination for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, as well as another popular 1967 release, To Sir With Love, perhaps cancelling himself out with these films. Both of his white co-stars in the two Best Picture nominees –Steiger and Spencer Tracy — were nominated. In fact, despite a golden opportunity to bestow acting nominations on a handful of black performers that year, the Academy gave 19 of 20 noms to white actors and just one to a black supporting actress: Beah Richards, for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Although he received an honorary Oscar in 2001, Poitier never again was nominated for a competitive Oscar after winning in ’63. In 2001, Denzel Washington became the first black man to take the Best Actor Oscar (for Training Day) since Poitier 38 years earlier.
This year, despite the presence of a strong, racially diverse ensemble cast in Selma, the Academy has been criticized for an all–white lineup of acting nominees, and the lack of more nominations for the film has thrown a new light on efforts toward diversifying the Academy and its membership. The Selma best picture nomination has been called “tokenism” by some, but that seems unfair considering it is one of only eight films released in 2014 on which the Academy chose to bestow its highest honor. Comparatively, though, those two 1967 best picture contenders had 17 nominations between them. In addition, Quincy Jones –then a young composer — landed two nominations for his work on In Cold Blood and the nominated song “The Eyes Of Love” from the film Banning.
The 1968 telecast was held just four years after the Civil Rights Bill passed and three years after the Voting Rights Bill depicted in Selma was passed. The nominated films did reflect the changing times even as Oscars were being handed out with renewed racial tensions due to King’s death. Peck began the show saying, “Last Monday was the 40th anniversary of the Academy Awards. This has been a fateful week in the history of our nation, and the two-day delay of this ceremony is the Academy’s way of paying our profound respect to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Of the five films nominated for best picture, two dealt with subjects between the races. We must unite in compassion if we are to survive.”
Hope’s reworked monologue followed and steered clear of specific mentions of King. He did refer to President Johnson’s recent announcement that he would not seek re-election, joking, “I will not seek nor will I accept an Oscar.” Johnson, then buried in the morass of the Vietnam War, was far from the man who got that landmark Civil Rights legislation through Congress near the beginning of his term. All these years later, Johnson again is part of the Oscar conversation thanks to his controversial presence in Selma.
The history of the Academy Awards and movies about race has been a spotty, and cyclical, one. Who can forget that historic show in 2001 when Poitier was honored, Washington took best actor, and Halle Berry became the first (and so far only) black woman to win Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball? Or in 1991, when John Singleton became the youngest director nominee ever for his unforgettable Boyz N The Hood? Or last year, with 12 Years A Slave’s triumph — the first best picture winner to deal with race since In The Heat Of The Night (unless you count 2005’s Crash).
Since Poitier broke that barrier for black actors with his nomination in 1958 for The Defiant Ones, as well as that 1963 Oscar win, several more have triumphed in both lead and supporting categories: Washington (twice), Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Cuba Gooding Jr., Louis Gossett Jr. and Morgan Freeman. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar (the first that any black person won when Hattie McDaniel did for Gone With The Wind in 1939) has seen a few more recent black winners, including Mo’nique, Octavia Spencer and, last year, Lupita Nyong’o. But let’s not forget 1985, when the most-nominated film with an all-black cast – Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple – also became one of Oscar’s most notorious statistics when it went 0-for-11 nominations.
There is no question there is room for more diversity in the Oscar nominations. It would have been nice to have seen history made with the first black woman to be nominated as best director, but that wasn’t to be for Selma’s Ava DuVernay. At least this year. Once the industry gives more opportunities to people of color, the Academy, as it has shown on occasion in the past, probably will follow suit. It will be interesting to see how this year’s show takes note of this, particularly in light of the much-discussed presence of Selma in Oscar’s marquee category. Shockingly, it is only the first major theatrical feature to focus on Martin Luther King Jr. It has taken all these years since that historic Oscar telecast back in the ’60s for this to happen.
But certainly on that unforgettable evening in 1968, the Academy did itself proud. Hope, in a rare serious moment, summed it all up after the Best Picture envelope was opened and the film announced was In The Heat Of The Night. “Clichés have been replaced,” he said. “Films reflect the human condition. The moguls shared something with the man in Atlanta — they had a dream.”