On April 13, 1964, Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar for best actor, awarded to him for his performance as the affable, itinerant handyman who helps a bevy of nuns to build a chapel in “Lilies of the Field.”
“It has been a long journey to this moment,” said an emotional Poitier, accepting the trophy, and a (then) controversial kiss from presenter Ann Bancroft.
But it would be another long journey before an African-American was so honored again, 38 years in fact, when Denzel Washington won for his performance as a rogue cop in “Training Day” (2001).
Since then, the pace has picked up, with Jamie Foxx winning in the role of Ray Charles in 2004 for “Ray,” and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in 2006 in “The Last King of Scotland.” And this year might see the strongest slate of contenders yet, with as many as four possible African-American nominees for best actor (based on Scott Feinberg’s uncannily accurate annual Oscar forecasting for the “Hollywood Reporter”): Chiwetel Ejiofor as the victim in “12 Years a Slave;” Michael B. Jordan as a casualty of police brutality in “Fruitvale Station;” Idris Elba in the title role of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom;” and Whitaker again, this time as a White House majordomo in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
But before we get too excited about Hollywood’s progress, it’s worth taking a look at an illuminating scene in the above-mentioned “The Butler.” It takes place in 1967, as Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who has been on the White House domestic staff since the Eisenhower administration, and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), host their estranged son Louis (David Oyelowo) for dinner. Louis has been a civil rights activist since the early days of non-violent resistance. But after years of frustration, he has abandoned hope of peaceful change, and now sports the black beret and leather jacket of the Black Panthers.
In an effort to direct the conversation to a neutral topic, Gloria mentions a movie she and Cecil just saw, “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Sidney Poitier.
Louis is not impressed. “Sidney Poitier is a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be,” he sniffs. This does not sit well with Cecil. “He just won the Academy Award,” he objects. “He’s breaking down barriers for all of us.”
After further discussion, Cecil violently expels Louis from his home. Does Louis have a point? Does Hollywood create fantasies, safe images of black people, to put on the screen? Are the Oscars Hollywood’s way of congratulating itself for these fantasies?
If so, what are the images presented in the four roles mentioned above?
A humble butler, a brutalized slave, a Trayvon Martin-like victim of police violence, and a saintly hero. All great performances, all based on real people — but are they also the images of black people that Hollywood finds least threatening?
In 1963, Poitier played a character who was a regular guy. Not a servant, not a slave, not a victim or a saint. After 50 years, though the chances of winning an Oscar for African-American actors have increased dramatically, the range of approved roles seems to have diminished.
Progress, for sure. But hardly the finish line.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.