Academy Awards / Black Actors
Two Factors being Ignored
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has approved a series of major changes, in terms of voting and recruitment in their attempt to overhaul a nominating process that has resulted in no black actors being nominated two years in a row. I'm not sure how much a difference these changes will make because I believe there are two largely ignored factors that for the most part, no one else has discussed.
The movies Hollywood Studios produce and distribute has changed profoundly in the last decade and that change has affected the roles offered to Black actors.
I give credit to the Los Angeles Times writer Rebecca Keegan for at least mentioning this element in her article -- "...But awards watchers said much of the blame belonged with the studios greenlighting films, who had given minority actors precious few roles to begin with.”
But the above quote only begins to point to the huge factor that has continued to make the situation worse for working black actors in America.
Over this last decade, Hollywood Studios/and the major production companies have made and/or distributed fewer movies for the theatrical market place than the previous decade. And the productions these entities do greenlight average hundreds of millions of dollars in production and marketing expenses for each movie. Their choices are guided ineviably on how their investment will make a profit, and the bottom line fact is this — the return on these huge investments are now often recouped through theatrical distribution of movies in the foreign markets. I’m writing this without checking on the latest figures, but I will venture to write that the theatrical return on a big studio action film is often times 70% Foreign and 30% Domestic (meaning U.S. /Canada).
So here’s the problem – the Foreign marketplace have notoriously been “non-white cast resistant” (the phrase is mine, to suggest how I believe the situation is often delicately discussed, if it is discussed at all anymore, in industry circles), when it comes to how the major markets overseas embrace American made movies.
This is a huge issue if you are anyone but black actors like Denzil Washington, Will Smith or Samuel Jackson.
I believe the American Actor is losing ground to the non-American Actor, especially in films that the Academy Awards has traditionally acknowledged with nominations.
Let’s look at how many actors nominated this year were American – Out of 20 Acting nominees; only 9 were American actors. The rest of the list breaks down this way – 9 were British actors, 1 Canadian, and 1 Swede.
In 2014, the year there were three black performers nominated for an acting award, (and one black actor won, for supporting actress, Lupita Nyong’o, who grew up and trained in Kenya). All three black actors were non-American actors (the other two, Chiwetel Ejifor, is a British Actor; and Barkhad Abdi, a Somali actor). The final breakdown of the 20 nominees - 12 Americans, 6 Brits, 1 Kenyan, 1 Somalian.
The critical year could be 2015 to prove my point, where there were also no black actors nominated. The final breakdown was 14 Americans, 5 Brits, and 1 French actor. Though this list speaks against a “British Invasion” (which is one of the points I’m making), it does say something about the issue -- out of 14 American actors nominated, none were black actors.
In 2014, when there were three black actors nominated, none were Americans.
So what’s my second point? Perhaps the training of actors in America is not so great when compared to the training programs in other countries, notably Great Britain. This to me is an issue that deserves its own study to see what the hell is happening, but I believe its very real.
For instance, the most popular series on TV at the moment, “The Walking Dead,” a Zombie show that takes place more or less in the states of Georgia and Virgina, have had, at one time or another, all playing prominent parts, four non-American actors.
The star of the show, Andrew Lincoln, is a Brit. Long time regular, Laren Cohen, and new cast member Lennie James are also Brits, as well as a villain on the series for a season, David Morrissey. All playing the roles of rural Southern American characters. (BTW, the actress, Danai
Gurira, who plays the character, Michonne, on the show, is a Zimbabwean/American actress, who spent most of her childhood in Zimbabwe, but trained as an actor here in the States. Though according to Wiki, she believes her time spent in another country other than the United States was important to her professional success).
Now don’t get me wrong -- every one of the actors I’ve cited above are all talented and professional. But I want to focus on two -- Lennie James, a black actor, who is arguably the best of any performer who has been cast on the show. He is a black British actor who got the role above every other actor, including any American black actors. And then there is Laren Cohen, (again, a solid artist) who is white, and plays a young, rural southern woman caught up in the plague of zombies.
So somehow Cohen was cast in this part because there was no available American actresses who read/tested/had the training/acting talent that were better than this British actor? Hard to believe, but somehow I must believe it because there are many other TV shows with similar cast breakdowns.
Once, again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the show’s producers should have done anything different than what they did in hiring all the performers I mention above. I’m only pointing out what I believe to be true - there seems to be a big problem with the acting training process/system here in the United States that is not bringing forth a class of actors who are castable in either major movies or hot TV shows. And whatever is happening, profession wide, is of course more impactful on those who are non-white.
There are other factors to consider with this issue that I believe are being ignored, but felt comfortable at this time to raise only these two. And yet I’m hopeful that my contribution adds to an honest and revealing discussion over this issue.