Is David Oyelowo Right About Oscar’s Preference for “Subservient” Black Narratives?

Last weekend, the Santa Barbara Film Festival presented its “Virtuosos Award” to seven actors, in recognition of their fine performances in films this year (check out the list; it is, in many ways, better than your Oscar nominees). As part of that evening’s festivities, the honorees were interviewed onstage, and one of those interviews has, over the past couple of days, gone viral: Selma’s David Oyelowo, discussing his Oscar snub with a bit of insight about the kind of performances the Academy likes to nominate and award. “Historically, this is truly my feeling,” he says. “I felt this before the situation we’re talking about and I feel it now. Generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative, driving it forward.” Does Oscar history prove him right? The answer may surprise you! (It totally won’t surprise you).

To date, 14 actors of color have won the Academy Award in the four categories of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (for 15 performances, out of 66 nominees). They are, in chronological order:

1939: Hattie McDaniel wins Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind, playing “Mammy,” a domestic servant.

1963: Sidney Poitier wins Best Actor for Lilies of the Field, playing an itinerant laborer who goes to work for a group of nuns. (As Oyelowo points out, Poitier was not even nominated for his now-legendary turn as a tough cop taking on racists in In the Heat of the Night.)

1982: Louis Gossett, Jr. wins Best Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman, playing a tough-as-nails gunnery sergeant who teaches our white hero (Richard Gere) valuable life lessons.

1989: Denzel Washington wins Best Supporting Actor for Glory, playing a slave turned Civil War solider. The story of this all-black brigade is told through the eyes of the white man (Matthew Broderick) who leads it.

1990: Whoopi Goldberg wins Best Supporting Actress for Ghost, playing a medium who helps to reconnect our white protagonists (Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore).

1996: Cuba Gooding Jr. wins Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire, playing a cocky pro football star who teaches our white hero (Tom Cruise) valuable life lessons.

2001: Denzel Washington wins Best Actor for Training Day, playing a corrupt, killer cop. (As Oyelowo notes, he was previously nominated, but did not win, for playing Malcolm X.)

Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball"

2001: Halle Berry wins Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, playing a desperate woman who turns to a relationship with a white man (Billy Bob Thornton) after her husband is executed and her son is killed. She is, to date, the only black Best Actress winner.

2004: Jamie Foxx wins Best Actor for Ray, playing Ray Charles.

2004: Morgan Freeman wins Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby, playing a wise boxing trainer and assistant to our white protagonist (Clint Eastwood).

2006: Forest Whitaker wins Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland, playing killer dictator Idi Amin — but the award is something of a misnomer, as his is actually a supporting performance. King is told through the eyes of a (fictional) white doctor played by James McAvoy.

2006: Jennifer Hudson wins Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls, playing an R&B singer.

2009: Mo’Nique wins Best Supporting Actress for Precious, playing an abusive mother and welfare cheat.

2011: Octavia Spencer wins Best Supporting Actress for The Help, playing a domestic servant.

2013: Lupita Nyong’o wins Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, playing a slave.

The last two entries are telling — particularly when compared to the first. Progress!

To be sure, there are a couple of exceptions to Oyelowo’s thesis in that list, and more in the nominees who didn’t win. But also in that nomination list, you’ll find Viola Davis in The Help, Ethel Waters in Pinky, and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (domestic servants); Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in Sounder (sharecroppers); Chiwitel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (slave); Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy (chauffeur); Diahann Carroll in Claudine (welfare mother); Rupert Crosse in The Reivers, Morgan Freeman in Street Smart, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, and Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips (criminals); and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile (what Spike Lee called “the magical Negro”).

Morgan Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy"

“We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things,” Oyelowo told the audience in Santa Barbara. “But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we’ve been those who changed the world.”

And that, ultimately, is what stings about Oyelowo getting the cold shoulder in favor of a millionaire murderer, a sniper, a nutty actor, and two troubled British geniuses. It’s not just that his was one of the year’s best, if not the best, performances; it’s that he was playing a man who is inarguably a leader, a king, and someone who changed the world. It’s rare enough that these roles are written, and that the films that feature them are financed (Oyelowo’s video, which you really should watch in its entirety, includes some fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made info about the direct effect of 12 Years’ and The Butler’s commercial success on Selma’s financing). But then the actors who play them aren’t recognized, or are only given JV status (Golden Globe nomination but no Oscar; Vanity Fair “Hollywood Issue” cover, but inside the fold).

This year’s lily-white acting nominees have prompted a backlash, and rightfully so. But Oyelowo’s observation puts an even finer point on it: If he really wants to get one of those golden boys, he’ll apparently have to tell his agent to go find him a movie where he can play a slave or a butler.