MAGAZINE EDITORS, LIKE MUSICIANS, seek to bring people together to create something new—and then listen for the desired response. By that standard, PEOPLE’S March 18 cover story, “Hollywood Blackout,” struck a note that still reverberates. The article, which pointed out that African-Americans and other minorities continue to be severely underrepresented in Hollywood, produced the biggest reaction in PEOPLE’S 22-year history. Within two weeks we heard from more than 550 readers on both sides of the question (see Mail, page 1), while newspaper columnists and TV shows ranging from CNN’s Showbiz Today to ABC’s Nightline debated the issue.
And then it got interesting. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, citing PEOPLE’s finding that the 166 nominees for this year’s Oscars included only one African-American, announced a boycott of the Academy Awards telecast on March 25. From that moment on, though, the issue turned to Jesse Jackson’s tactics and not the underlying questions raised by PEOPLE. “Show me the wonderful performances that have been overlooked,” erupted an Academy official. Whoopi Goldberg belittled Jackson on the ABC Oscar telecast. The unofficial industry response came from a Hollywood trade magazine, Variety, whose editor criticized Jackson’s boycott and accused PEOPLE of “having run out of Princess Di banners.” While conceding that the business is “notoriously exclusionary,” he went on to conclude, “No matter what anyone tells you, Hollywood hires on merit, and the opportunities are there.”
The real issue, of course, is not whether deserving black Oscar nominees were overlooked by the Academy’s voters. The issue is that there are so few black candidates available in the first place. The film industry remains one of the most racially exclusive major businesses in America. Only a handful of the 152 movies released by the major studios last year starred or costarred an African-American woman. For a black actress to win a role important enough to allow full expression of her talents, and then get the recognition of an Oscar nomination, requires formidable talent indeed.
In fact, such talent was abundantly on display in Los Angeles last week at the Black Academy Award Nominees Dinner. This intimate gathering, held every year the night before the Oscars, has been drawing prominent blacks in Hollywood for most of the past 20 years. Its goal: to recognize the most accomplished blacks in films. Guests included established figures such as Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson and Oprah Winfrey, and honorees were stars like Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington. The mood was warm, supportive and upbeat. Even after losing in her category of best live-action short the next night, director Dianne Houston vowed, with a smile, “I’ll be back next time with a feature.”