“This moment is so much bigger than me,” Halle Berry said in 2002 while accepting history’s first Oscar awarded to a black leading actress. “This is for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door has opened.”
If you didn’t know the context of that speech, you might think it came from a civil rights leader like Rosa Parks, not an actress. Nevertheless, Berry’s win — on the same night Denzel Washington took home the gold for leading actor — was instantly seen as a cultural milestone. The Dallas Morning News called the awards “a victory for social progress,” while The New York Times applauded “Oscar’s Step Toward Redemption.”
That’s a lot of baggage to load onto what is essentially a trade-association award. Nevertheless, since they were first bestowed in 1929 the Academy Awards have become one of the most widely recognized honors in the world, second perhaps only to the Nobel Prizes. Their worth is determined partly in economic terms — an Oscar certainly helps a star’s career — but mostly in symbolic terms, signifying entrance to an elite club of high achievers. For those reasons, the Oscars’ controversial roster of all-Caucasian acting nominees this year and last, coming at a time when race seems to underscore so many headlines, has struck a nerve. Though movies may not be the dominant form of entertainment they once were, the Oscars clearly still matter.
“This is an issue that’s tearing America apart, and now we get to see it played out in Hollywood,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-tracking site GoldDerby.com. “As painful as it is to watch, it must play out.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t set out to become a barometer of American culture. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Oscar mainly celebrated what was “best,” but after the dawn of the 1960s it also began to signify what was “important.” Over the decades there were steps forward (Sidney Poitier becoming the first-ever African-American to win the leading actor award, in 1964) and there were missteps (the controversial best picture award to “Driving Miss Daisy” over Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in 1989). There were also embarrassments like Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his 1973 Oscar (for “The Godfather”) in protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans.
All of it, though, made for great television. Even though Oscar speeches have gotten longer and more preachy, even though the Oscars sometimes go to movies nobody saw (2009’s “The Hurt Locker” and 2014’s “Birdman” are the first and second lowest-grossing best-picture winners in the modern era), the Academy Awards remain a ratings bonanza. They’ve stayed mostly steady over the decades, with peaks (55 million viewers in 1998, when “Titanic” won best picture) and valleys (32 million in 2008, when “No Country For Old Men” took the top award), according to reported Nielsen data.
That exposure, along with the stamp of on Oscar on a movie poster, can make films even more visible. “There are plenty of people who don’t go the movies all that often, and they usually wait to hear what their friends are saying or what the nominees are,” says Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com. “And that still can drive tickets a lot.”
Beyond that, the pure validation of an Oscar is important, says Cynthia Swartz, a veteran Oscar campaigner and president of Strategy PR. “It’s unfortunate that the media has turned it into a horse race. A little bit of what’s lost is how wonderful it is for people to get nominated,” she says. “That’s why obviously there’s this controversy. That’s why people care.”
There’s little excuse today for the Academy’s exclusion of black actors, given the increasing amount of black-oriented and black-led films, says Dwight Brown, a syndicated African-American film critic, citing movies like the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” and the current Jesse Owens biopic “Race.” “Twenty years ago, you could maybe say, ‘Oh, they’re only doing stupid comedies and straight to video movies.’ But now there are some nice, hefty, stick-to-your ribs movies besides just ‘Ride Along 2.’ ”
What all this suggests is that today’s controversy over race is about more than just winning an award. “The beauty of Hollywood, combined with American ideals, is the ultimate dream for humanity, the basis of the American concept of ‘anything is possible with hard work and dedication,’ ” Will Smith told “Good Morning America” after his decision to boycott the Oscars. “I think that I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great.”