Denzel Washington's 'Flight' Role Stirs Oscar Buzz: Would An Academy Award Be Racist?

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The Oscar buzz surrounding Denzel Washington's performance as an alcoholic pilot in the film "Flight" has become the subject of controversy. 

In a recent article, "Denzel Was Brilliant, But an Oscar for His Latest Film Would Be Racist," Your Black World Coalition founder Dr. Boyce Watkins argues that the Academy Awards typically honor black actors when they play unsavory characters. 

"The bottom line is simple. If a black person does a good impression of a thief, drug addict, prostitute, maid or athlete, you’ve got yourself a touchdown," Watkins said. "The worst thing you can do, however, is play a role that communicates intelligence, integrity or courage … that’s 'not realistic.'"

Watkins cites the 1992 Oscars as an example of the Academy's discriminatory voting practices. That year, Washington was up for the Best Actor award for "Malcolm X." Surprisingly, the award went to Al Pacino for his role in "Scent of a Woman." It has been argued that Pacino won the coveted golden statue after being being passed over by the academy for his acclaimed performances in "The Godfather," "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." Regardless, the fact that Washington's riveting portrayal of the iconic civil rights leader was overlooked by the Academy made for one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. According to Watkins, Washington picked up the award in 2002 for his role as a corrupt Los Angeles cop in "Training Day" because he was playing an African-American role that the Academy is more comfortable rewarding.

"Denzel’s Academy Award for Best Actor came after he played a corrupt cop and flat out horrible human being in 'Training Day,'" Watkins said. "This was yet another case in which the Academy suddenly noticed that this Hollywood veteran has acting talent.  The fact is that Denzel is every bit as impressive when he plays an honorable man as he is when he plays a menace to society." 

Though Watkins makes a valid point, the Academy hasn't entirely ignored wholesome performances by black actors. Washington himself won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1989 for his performance as a doomed freed slave in "Glory." With five apiece, Washington and Morgan Freeman currently hold the record for the black actor with most Academy Award nominations. Jamie Fox took home the award in 2004 for his portrayal of Ray Charles while Forest Whitaker received the award for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006. While it may be argued that those last two characters could support Watkins's argument, it would be unreasonable to accuse them of promoting unfavorable stereotypes as both are based on prominent, real-life historical figures. 

Perhaps instead of posing the question, "Does the Academy prefer to recognize unflattering portrayals of black characters?" it should be asked, "Does the Academy recognize performances by black actors often enough in general?" 

If Washington is nominated for his role in "Flight," he will be the first black actor to compete for the Best Actor award since 2009, when Freeman earned a nomination for his performance as Nelson Mandela in "Invictus."  Eddie Murphy's 2006 nomination for his performance as a troubled soul singer in "Dreamgirls" was the last time a black actor was nominated for Best Supporting actor. 

Actresses had better luck within the last couple of years after films like "Precious" and "The Help" gave black actresses the spotlight in both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress category.

However, there's no disputing that both white actors receive Oscar nominations and awards far more often than their minority colleagues - largely due to the fact that only 13 percent of roles are given to black actors. And underrepresentation in the entertainment industry doesn't' stop there: According to PBS, only 4 percent the Directors Guild is made of black directors. Let's not forget the Twitter war that broke out earlier this year after two black actors were featured in "The Hunger Games," which demonstrated that a portion of filmgoers have racist attitudes toward casting popular films. 

"There was a time when Black actors were overwhelmingly cast as addicts, drug dealers, or some other kind of ne'er do well." said Imani Perry, a professsor of African American Studies at Princeton University. "I think this has changed somewhat, but irrespective of the occupations of the characters, it is still the case that there simply aren't enough complex deeply interesting characters that are cast with Black actors. This is why films like Ava Duvernay's 'Middle of Nowhere' or Dee Rees' 'Pariah' are so important. They give Black actors a chance to display their gifts with meaty roles."

"Roles for black actors, at least for those whose names aren't Will Smith and Denzel Washington, are scarce because Hollywood is conservative when it comes to taking chances," Ernest Harris, a rising African-American filmmaker, said. "While movies are made in Hollywood, the audience is not and Hollywood bases its decisions on pure numbers. If the numbers indicate that mainstream audiences, which means mainly white, don't want to see movies perceived as 'black movies,' then they will not fund them. Unless of course it is a movie that is targeted to a black audience. Hollywood decisions are based on formulas. However, my problem with the formula is that I think it grossly underestimates what white audiences will accept as far as more leading black actors."

"There are so few roles for black actors because our role models are still primarily white," says California psychologist Dr. Judy Rosenberg. "If you look at the key big stars, you will see that the box office is selling more white actors than black actors. It boils down to economics: Producers and investors are going to do their research and find out where the money is. And wherever that is--whether it is in the melanin or lack thereof, is where they are going to invest."

In a recent guest post for the Hollywood Reporter, Russell Simmons urged, "'Flight': 'Don't Boycott, Take Your Friends." Simmons argues that Washington's character in "Flight" should be embraced as a role in which race is not a factor. 

"'Flight' is a perfect example of how Hollywood can embrace a new American reality, where black people are pilots of airplanes and have problems just like white people," Simmons said. "Research shows that blacks and whites abuse drugs and alcohol at the same exact rate. So Denzel's character doesn't represent a black problem or a white problem; he represents an American problem. 'Flight' is a classic American story of redemption."

"Dr. Boyce Watkins and Russell Simmons are both correct because the black community is not one entity, it is a rich in culture and extremely diverse in how they see themselves," Michael Dixon, CEO of Stormnet Entertainment, said. "I believe this is the fundamental problem white America has with African Americans because they would like them to be what they think they should be through their eyes, not the true diverse reality of the people." 

Though the scarcity of roles for black actors persists, both Simmons and Perry believe that the studio system has the ability to change that.  

"The business of diversity means a lot of money," Simmons said, "and Hollywood studios and execs stand to gain a whole lot if they embrace the evolution of American culture."

"Film is one of the ways that people in this culture learn to imagine outside of their own lives," added Perry. "If we have different kinds of people on screen, we encourage individuals in our society to imagine the lives of people beyond themselves, to see the possibility that anyone in any kind of body might be a hero, or a heartthrob, or simply a person who you can identify with. For these reasons, racial diversity in film matters."

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