Denzel Washington has two Academy Awards to his name — one for Best Supporting Actor for the 1989 war drama Glory, and one for Best Actor for his role as a corrupt cop 2001’s Training Day. Both were fine parts for the actor, but his proudest career moment was quickly forgotten by the Academy when voters passed up Washington’s Oscar-nominated role as activist Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie and gave the award to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman — hardly Pacino’s best performance. Malcolm X’s director, Spike Lee, was totally shut out of the Academy with no Oscar nominations.
Washington, who has been acting in films for over 35 years, is weirdly the rarity — one of a small handful of black actors, actresses, and filmmakers who have been recognized by the Academy. Not much has changed since Washington’s 2001 Oscar. This year’s Academy Awards marks the second year that there are no people of color nominated for acting Oscars, prompting the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, boycotts by black actors, and our recent discussion about Hollywood’s diversity problem.
We wanted to take this moment to recognize some of the Oscar-worthy roles by black actors and the artistry of black filmmakers from the past.
Spike Lee for Malcolm X
Arguably cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and Spike Lee’s greatest collaboration, Malcolm X is an impressive film from a technical standpoint, but also a painting on the screen. It’s easy for movies that broach the subject of spirituality to segue into melodramatic territory, but Lee shows an incredible restraint.
Critical support from Roger Ebert:
“Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ is one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the whole sweep of an American life that began in sorrow and bottomed out on the streets and in prison before its hero reinvented himself. Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn’t deal all of the cards. The film is inspirational and educational – and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else. . . . Spike Lee is not only one of the best filmmakers in America, but one of the most crucially important, because his films address the central subject of race. He doesn’t use sentimentality or political cliches, but shows how his characters live, and why. Empathy has been in short supply in our nation recently. Our leaders are quick to congratulate us on our own feelings, slow to ask us to wonder how others feel. But maybe times are changing. Every Lee film is an exercise in empathy. He is not interested in congratulating the black people in his audience, or condemning the white ones. He puts human beings on the screen, and asks his audience to walk a little while in their shoes.”
Adepero Oduye in Pariah
We chose Dee Rees’ lesbian coming-of-age tale as one of the essential African-American indie films you should know.
Critical support from Slant’s Ed Gonzalez:
“She [star Adepero Oduye] makes poignant, without sentimentalizing, the sad daily ritual of Alike dyking herself down on the bus ride from school to home, the unspokenness with which she and Laura acknowledge the rules of their friendship after a dramatically undramatic tiff, and the way a moment of tenderness between siblings opens the door for a sister, in her own language, to tell the other that she accepts her lifestyle—without either of them saying what exactly is being accepted. It’s a smart, tough performance that’s full of range and never feels self-serving.”
Kasi Lemmons for Eve’s Bayou
Kasi Lemmons created a hauntingly beautiful debut feature with 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, which has been praised as highly original, poetic, beautifully photographed, and rich with magic.
Critical support from the New York Times:
“Louisiana’s delta country has never looked more darkly, lusciously sensual than it does in ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ a Southern gothic soap opera, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, that transcends the genre through the sheer rumbling force of its characters’ passions. This powerfully acted supernatural fever dream, which suggests Tennessee Williams filtered through “Oprah” with a dash of voodoo, explores the ties that bind the women of the Batiste family, an affluent black clan who live what at first appears to be a robust fairy-tale existence in a steamy paradise. . . . Every element of the film — from the turbulent, stormy performances to the rich cinematography (which includes black-and-white computer-enhanced dream sequences) to the setting itself, in which the thick layers of hanging moss over muddy water seem to drip with sexual intrigue and secrecy — merges to create an atmosphere of extraordinary erotic tension and anxiety.”
Charles Burnett for Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett wrote 1978’s Killer of Sheep, a neorealist-style portrait of a black family in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood (where the director lived as a child), for his UCLA master’s thesis. The filmmaker shot it on the weekends for less than $10,000. It has since been recognized as one of the most important African-American films in cinema. “Charles Burnett is not only the most important African-American director but one of the most distinctive filmmakers this country has ever produced,” Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote.
Critical support from Kenneth Turan:
“The fact that ‘Killer of Sheep’ has been all but unseeable for years has not hurt its reputation. It’s considered such a landmark of both American independent and African American cinema that it was one of the first 50 culturally significant films selected for preservation in the Library of Congress by the National Film Registry. All this for a film made so close to the bone that Burnett served as writer, director, producer, editor and cameraman. A film that is more episodic than plot driven, that offers a character-centered portrait of a community rarely seen on film to this day: people of color who are part of the working poor, living from check to check and trying to make ends meet and get ahead. . . . One of the strengths of ‘Killer of Sheep,’ one of the reasons it has not dated, is that the naturalness and simplicity with which it unfolds give it the texture of a story told from the inside. The film’s sensitivity to mood and moment create a privileged glimpse of reality — scenes like Stan and his wife slow dancing to Dinah Washington singing ‘This Bitter Earth’ — that are indelible.”
Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat
Wright’s performance captures the late artist’s complexities and reveals the humanity behind Basquiat’s mythical status.
Critical support from the New York Times:
“As played appealingly by Jeffrey Wright, the Tony Award winner for his role as the nurse Belize in ‘Angels in America,’ and a star of ‘Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,’ the film’s Basquiat is a magnetically attractive innocent when he first appears. He seems magically anointed as an artist while still a little boy, staring at “Guernica” with his mother.”
Lena Horne in Stormy Weather
Beyond Lena Horne’s beautiful rendition of the title song, 1943’s Stormy Weather features a number of African-American lead performers (including Bill Robinson) — a rarity for the time. The film itself is credited with offering black stars roles beyond the racist clichés (though the movie does feature some visual references to minstrel performance).
Critical support from the New York Times:
“Musically, too, it is a joy to the ear, especially when Miss Horne digs deep into the depths of romantic despair to put across the classic blues number, after which the picture is titled, in a manner that is distinctive and refreshing even at this late day. She does very well also by ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love Baby,’ ‘There’s No Two Ways About Love,’ and ‘Diga Diga Do’ among others.”
Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man
An underrated actor who portrayed the struggles of uncompromising African-Americans in a number of groundbreaking roles.
Critical support from the Washington Post:
“‘Nothing but a Man’ is one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country. And for those close to film, and who’ve known about its existence for a long time, this revival is long overdue. The filmmakers behind this extraordinary picture have been through this game before. Just three years ago, director, co-writer and co-producer Michael Roemer and his longtime collaborator, co-producer and photographer Richard Young brought back their 1969 ‘The Plot Against Harry’ — another film that was ahead of its time — to great acclaim. This movie, though, is in another class altogether. . . . All of the performances are beautifully and simply drawn. Ivan Dixon (best known from ‘Hogan’s Heroes’) gives a spectacular depiction of a strong, principled individual who will not bend over for any man, white or black. It’s an early portrait of black pride, presented long before showing pride in being black was accepted.”
David Oyelowo in Selma
For the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that Ava DuVernay’s profound portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches in Selma “tears away the curtain on the making of images.” Oyelowo is not concerned with portraying King’s likeness as he is with embodying King’s gravitas, his emotional essence, and his gifts as an orator.
Critical support from Ashley Clark:
“One of Selma’s central strengths is its insistence on presenting a three-dimensional version of King. He is a figure too often blandly sanctified (like Gandhi) in public discourse, or posited as a peaceful, neatly binary alternative to the firebrand Malcolm X. He’s complex and alive here, and incarnated wonderfully by Oyelowo, who gives a resolutely unflashy performance: serene but capable of fear, doubt and even anger, most thrillingly in the animated speech following the police murder of protester Jimmie Lee Jackson.”
Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation
Abiola Oke for CNN writes:
“‘Beasts of No Nation’ was one of the best films of 2015, yet it didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. In fact, out of 528 nominations in the Best Picture category, no film with an all-black cast has ever been nominated for Best Picture. Even space has more gravity than the number of all black-cast films nominated. . . . Idris Elba with his riveting performance as a warrior demagogue and new comer Abraham Attah who played an impressionable child soldier thrust into the devastation of civil war were some of this year’s most egregious snubs.”
Critical support from our own Jason Bailey:
“He’s a study in duality, projecting the strength of a military commander, and the weakness of a man who’s literally letting children do his fighting for him. As Beasts progresses, that weakness becomes the subject of the film — how he abuses his power, and allows his actions to be determined by pettiness and ego. It’s a tremendous performance, which isn’t much of a surprise coming from an actor of Elba’s weight and skill.”