Editor’s note: Dwayne Barnes wrote a touching column on his portrayal as a desperate crack addict in Menace II Society, when a recent controversy reared up over an agent sending that clip from the film to a manager. Today, he brings a journeyman actor’s perspective to why the 93rd Academy Award cannot be dismissed even if prognosticators prove right and TV ratings suffer in the recognition of films that bowed when theaters were closed by a global pandemic. – MF
As voters fill out their final Oscar ballots, there seems to be less suspense about who will win than on how low the TV ratings will be for the 93rd Academy Awards. Some believe this will be a forgettable ceremony, celebrating films released during a Covid pandemic where nobody went to the movies. The results, the skeptics say, is that no matter what Oscarcast producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher do, they will presiding over the lowest-rated show in memory.
Maybe so. But as an African American actor who has long struggled to stay upbeat while going on countless auditions, and often feeling like the deck was stacked against me, I think that this Oscars will be forever remembered as the one where changes in the voting body made six years ago in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite has delivered an a promise by the Academy to reform itself.
I cannot recall a year where there was this much diversity in the crop of nominees. It still boggles the mind to imagine that only one woman – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker – won Best Director, and here we see women have two chances out of five in this race, with Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell and Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao, the latter of whom became the first woman of color to ever be nominated in that category. There is diversity all through the nominations, including SAG Award winners Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Minari’s Yuh-Jung Youn, Steven Yeun and writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, and Judas and the Black Messiah’s Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. And let’s not forget that the electric performance by Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal makes him the first Muslim to win a Best Actor nomination, or how, in her first major screen performance, singer Andra Day made it only the second time two Black actresses were Best Actress nominees, Day for The United States Vs. Billie Holliday.
I cannot stress how important this is to the actors of color who hone their craft, who wait tables and endure rejections at auditions, to imagine that Hollywood might finally be a place where inclusion is the rule rather than the exception. And where, if more of us can get hold of a role like Day, who made us fall in love with Billie Holliday the way she did with that performance, that more of us might someday be sitting in the Dolby Theatre, hoping to hear our name called.
We have been teased before, only to find the deck stacked against us because of the racial and demographic makeup of voters. And I’m not even addressing the shocking revelation that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that votes for the Golden Globes doesn’t even have a single Black voter.
It was 20 years ago when the hopeful actor in me moved to Hollywood from Detroit to pursue my dream. I don’t know why I did it. It just called me, as a genuine passion and ambition tend to do.
This after I was a small part of a renaissance that gave hope in the ‘90s when there was a surge in films made by and for African Americans. There was John Singleton’s (RIP) Boyz N the Hood, and Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society. I played a small part in the latter, of an addict so desperate for a crack fix that he thought nothing of degrading himself to get it, paying for it with his life.
I thought with the wave of these and other urban-themed films in the early ’90s, a break was coming for us. I hoped Cuba Gooding Jr, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett would get nominations and possible wins for Oscars for their roles in Boyz N the Hood, and that Larenz Tate would get nominated and possibly win for his riveting role in Menace II Society. Yes, I had hope, but nope. We got crickets.
In my experience, African American artists weren’t being given many groundbreaking creative opportunities in the early ’90s. If I desired to perform my acting craft, I had to take what was available for me. I played thug after thug after thug, including that infamous crackhead in Menace II Society, the best I could find for a chance to express myself as an artist.
And when I moved from Detroit to Hollywood, all in on the actor’s dream, it was during a moment where again we had reason to hope real change was coming.
I’ll never forget the night of March 22, 2002. The show was the Oscars, the host Whoopi Goldberg, only the second African American woman to win an Oscar. With tear-filled eyes, I sat silently as she presided over another groundbreaking moment in my life, and in the lives of many African American actors, when two of my favorite African American actors took home the gold.
Denzel Washington won for Best Actor for his role in Training Day, and Halle Berry won Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball. And even more jaw-dropping to me, both of these films had the creative influence of African American directors: Antoine Fuqua directed Training Day, and Lee Daniels produced the Marc Forster-directed Monster’s Ball.
Berry said in her speech, “This moment is so much bigger than me, this moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll … It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
For many in the African American artistic community, which I can only speak for, the conversation was “the door is finally fully opened” for people of color, more chances to consistently be strongly considered for the Oscar gold when the performance warrants it.
Many of us felt that just like everyone else in the industry; African American artists also give our lives, hearts, souls, talent, and creativity on par with any.
We, too, get the auditions. We, too, call the friend or acting coach and ask them to run lines. We, too, may ask them, in current times, to self-tape with us. We, too, have to drive or take various forms of transportation from Hollywood to Santa Monica, from the Bronx to Manhattan, from Atlanta to New York, and back again to perform our auditions, just praying for a yes. Many times hearing “Great, thanks” from the casting director and leave wondering, “Did I please them? Was I too big? Was I too small?” The vulnerability of it all, the stress, the anxiety. Just to have a chance to shine on that large platform.
The promise of 20 years proved largely an anomaly, despite glory Oscar moments for African American people of color in Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Monique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o and two-time winner Mahershala Ali, who became the first Muslim to win an Oscar for his courageous performance in Moonlight.
Ironically, the biggest change that has led to the current crop of diversity wasn’t due to a performance onscreen. It all boiled down to who was voting. According to a 2012 report by the Los Angeles Times, Oscar voters were 94% Caucasian and 77% men, a sobering reality that served as a robust understanding of what the real issue was. If there aren’t a balanced number of people in the voting rooms, the results will reflect that disparity. Simple as that.
In 2015, activist April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Social media may have its shortcomings, but in this situation, it was the vehicle we needed, and made a huge difference. In an unprecedented turn, this movement grew, and viewers threatened to boycott the show over its lack of diversity. See us. Hear us. Respect us.
In summer of 2015, after the reelection of Cheryl Boone Isaacs to president of AMPAS – she was the first African American to hold the post — she presided over a conscious attempt to level the playing field. Some 683 new invitations to a diverse group were sent out; that included 46% women and 41% people of color. It took a few years to take hold, but there is every reason to hope that the change is reflected in this year’s diversified Oscar nominee crop, and that that there is real reason to hope it’s not a one-time occurrence. Because of a better balanced Oscar voting system.
Oscar ratings? I don’t know about all that, and frankly, I’m not even concerned about it. I’m most excited that all the global cultural shifts, and the change in the color scheme of Hollywood decision makers and Oscar voters, might forever shift the complexion of the Oscars, and the color scheme of the movies that get made and celebrated for excellence. No matter who wins or loses the night of April 25, the 93rd Academy Awards will be remembered forever for this reason.