Billy Crystal in blackface: Are the Academy Awards out of touch on race?

Many African-Americans were, at best, rubbed the wrong way by the Academy Awards telecast. The performance by Billy Crystal was just one of the complaints.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters
Oscar host Billy Crystal sings at the beginning of the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 26.

Many reviews of the 84th Oscars characterized the telecast as playing it safe – returning to the tried-and-true and attempting to embrace the glory days of Hollywood. But even if it tried to please a wide-ranging audience, many African-Americans were, at best, rubbed the wrong way.

For many blacks, Sunday’s night show pointed up a stark disconnect between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and the realities of American life. Their list of complaints is long: Billy Crystal portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in blackface, and he lampooned James Earl Jones’s voice and Morgan Freeman’s thoughts. Finishing his quip that there are no black women in Beverly Hills, he said he would have to drive 45 minutes to find one.

It didn’t help matters that “The Help” – about poor African-American maids in the 1960s South – was passed over for several key awards, or that first-choice host, Eddie Murphy, withdrew after his producer was dropped for making a homophobic remark.

“This show touched a nerve with the African-American community nationwide,” says Najee Ali, a black activist as executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. “They are making a slew of comments on Facebook and Twitter that AMPAS is totally out of touch with reality.”

He points to statistics in a recent study by the Los Angeles Times. It showed the academy to be 92 percent white and 77 percent male, and having an average age of 62. “They aren’t in sync with current events because they live in a plastic bubble,” Mr. Ali says.

That’s all true, agree others. But not so fast with negative assessments about racial overtones.

In the first place, Mr. Crystal is not the academy, nor was he voted as host by the academy, points out film composer Charles Bernstein, who for 10 years was chairman of the Academy Awards’ rules committee. The academy is 6,000-plus professionals giving awards of merit, and the Oscars is a show put on by ABC – and Crystal is a comedian hired to entertain people between awards of merit, he says.

“It’s easy to confuse the two issues,” he says, “but don’t think that because Billy Crystal is making a joke, that that is how the academy feels.”

Mr. Bernstein is irritated by accusations of non-inclusion when the academy gave key awards to films involving Iran, Pakistan, Italy, and France. Also, Octavia Spencer was named best supporting actress for her portrayal of a black maid in “The Help.”

“The academy voters are the ones who stood up and cheered for Octavia Spencer, so I get annoyed when the press spends the day after in a feeding frenzy that AMPAS is villainous and not diverse,” Bernstein says.

The Oscars controversy, some say, is useful for explaining why the dialogue about race in America often goes nowhere.

“Comedians ... can always hide behind the fact that it was all entertainment, poking fun at precisely the humorless people who might take offense,” says Gordon Coonfield, director of graduate studies in Villanova University’s communication department, in an email. Often, he says, so-called racist episodes can’t be proved. “The perpetrator backs off and says, ‘Well, that wasn’t my intention,’ and the episode deteriorates into a yes-you-are, no-I’m not name-calling.”

AMPAS has the same white power structure that is present in other parts of America, say others.

“We are a nation that tells ourselves that that we are colorblind, but any cursory examination of who controls the nation's positions of power (the Senate, corporate America, directors’ boards, presidents of universities) tells us a story of white control,” says Charles Gallagher, La Salle University sociology professor, in an e-mail.

He adds that for most whites, however, the fact that whites still control most institutions has been replaced with the idea that racial minorities have achieved social and economic parity.

President Obama and movies like ‘The Help’ further cement the idea that the age of colorblindness has arrived. If you start with the premise that whites see a level playing field, which according to Gallup polls is the case, then all groups and topics are fair game for ridicule,” Professor Gallagher says. “If you believe that ... disadvantages are a thing of the past, then you can grease on the blackface because blacks are now perceived to be part of the socioeconomic mainstream, even though they remain marginalized in places like Hollywood.”

Others say that such issues should be kept in perspective by realizing their historical context – as well as by recognizing the decline of the Oscar telecast.

“Blackface was at one time a vehicle for the ‘World’s Greatest Entertainer’ to introduce traditional African-American music like jazz and blues to a white audience,” says Nancy Snow, communications professor at California State University. “In 2012, it’s just part of the old Billy Crystal shtick from his [‘Saturday Night Live’] days.”

She adds, “The real controversy here is twofold: how unfunny the shtick was and the declining relevancy of the Oscars as a must-see TV event.”

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