Controversy Hits Oscars Even Before Envelopes Opened

If movies are the cultural memory of our century, then Hollywood has amnesia when it comes to African-Americans, says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has called for nationwide protests against tonight's Academy Awards broadcast.

Indeed, while black ties will be visible everywhere at the Oscar ceremony, black faces at the winners' podium will not. Only one of the Academy's 166 nominated artists this year is African-American: Director Dianne Houston is nominated for a live-action short film.

Not all black leaders support Mr. Jackson's headline-grabbing style - Oprah Winfrey has come out against a boycott - but the venerable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still finds its policies and procedures under close scrutiny, as artists and activists seize the moment to question the treatment of African-Americans in Hollywood.

"Let's start with the Academy board. Some of the good old boys are going to have to give up power," declares actor-director Tim Reid. Mr. Reid directed this year's "Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored," which won considerable critical acclaim but was overlooked in the Oscar nominations.

Nominations Put Spotlight On Academy Membership

Reid points out that African-Americans spend 25 cents of every movie-ticket dollar and calls it "bad business, vulgar, and disrespectful to ignore the contribution of our artists."

Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden calls Hollywood's exclusion of black talent "overt and conscious."

But Academy president Arthur Hiller says race is not an issue. "The Academy exists to reward and nurture excellence." He insists that often, with the non-actor awards, he doesn't even know the race of the person, just the quality of the work. "Everyone takes their vote very seriously. This is just the way the nominations fell out this year," he sighs.

Each of the nonprofit Academy's 13 branches, representing areas of the industry such as actors, directors, and special effects, nominates its own five choices. The entire membership votes on the winners. Founded in 1927 by a group of 36 stars and film executives, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, and Harry and Jack Warner, the Academy now has a membership of 5,043.

Entry is by invitation only, and then only for those "who have achieved distinction" in their field. Aspiring members must have two sponsors and can be turned down by vote of the Board of Governors without explanation - even to the sponsors.

Actor Phillip Pine has been an Academy member since 1969. He has twice sponsored actors for membership, most recently John Larroquette in 1995. Pine says, "He was turned down, I wasn't given a reason. I don't suppose we'll ever know why."

The Academy won't release demographic data, but according to a recent People magazine cover story on racism in Hollywood, the membership is 3.9 percent black. African-Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the overall United States population.

"Let's take a look at that process," observes Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center. Does the Academy really reflect the industry? "Yes," she answers with a laugh. "Unfortunately, mostly white male," meaning that blacks as well as women and other minorities are underrepresented in the Academy and the entertainment industry.

The current controversy is not the first time politics has hit the Oscars. Black groups protested the scarcity of black faces in Hollywood for the first time in 1977 - the same year that members of the Jewish Defense League waved anti-Vanessa Redgrave signs, while PLO sympathizers demonstrated in her support. Ms. Redgrave won the best actress Oscar for her role in "Julia."

The Academy may not be keeping pace with society, concedes Brian Stonehill, director of the Media Studies Program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., partly because it takes so long to get in. But pointing to this year's African-American host, Whoopi Goldberg, and producer, Quincy Jones, he adds that this may not be the most convincing year to make that point.

Beyond the awards, Mr. Stonehill says, the Academy fulfills other important purposes for the industry, "writing down our dreams and keeping them alive," in the Academy foundation library and archives, which he calls "a mecca for scholars around the world."

And just to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same, a 1934 letter from the film-rating board to Paramount excoriates a Mae West film, "Belle of the Nineties," for "general themes on the side of evil and crime and against goodness, decency and law." The board declares that it will be forced to reject the film "in toto" if released.

Down in the basement of the same building, a five-year-old renovation of the former Beverly Hills Waterworks, Academy archivist Michael Friend says, if anything, his nearly 15,000-title collection is colorblind. "I've got black exploitation movies [many of which were made by African-American directors] from the '70s that nobody may ever want to see, but they're part of film history, so we've got them."

The Academy also has a full range of behind-the-scenes activities devoted to developing and directing young talent, from a $25,000 first-time screenwriter's scholarship, to student awards, to workshops, visiting artists, screenings, and seminars open to the public. Academy president Hiller says all of these activities show the Academy's long-term commitment to developing new talent and technologies.

But development is not what mature artists like Tim Reid and others want. "I don't need a workshop. I need work," Reid says.

If this latest round of Oscar controversy helps pave the way for greater utilization of seasoned African-American talent, then the Academy will, in another way, have been nudged into fulfilling its mandate to reward and nurture excellence.

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