Just 14 years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a boycott of the Academy Awards due to the dearth of African American entertainers nominated for Oscars. In the new millennium, however, the Academy Awards have consistently nominated blacks for Oscars. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jen Hudson and Forest Whitaker have all nabbed Academy Awards in recent years. And Sophie Okonedo, Will Smith and Don Cheadle are among the blacks to receive nominations in the 2000s.
When the Oscars were announced today, we learned that Mo'Nique, Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe are all nominated for their work in "Precious." Because that movie has come under fire for depicting urban blacks as dysfunctional, not to mention promoting colorism, it's safe to say that the African American community isn't uniformly thrilled about the nominations of this trio (not that the Af Am community uniformly agrees on anything), but at least blacks can say that they were counted among the ranks during the ceremony. Outside of the "Precious" crew, Morgan Freeman received an Oscar nod for portraying Nelson Mandela in "Invictus" and "The Princess and the Frog," which features Disney's first black princess, received a nod for Best Animated Film.
Latinos and Asian Americans, on the other hand, can't say that the Oscars represents entertainers from their communities. While the Academy Awards periodically acknowledge Asians and Latinos from other countries, Asian-Americans and Latinos from the U.S. have routinely been overlooked by the Oscars. Benicio del Toro, who was born in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, is a notable exception. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2001 for his work in "Traffic."
Clearly a major reason that Asians and Latinos haven't been recognized by the Oscars very frequently is because they're not well represented in film overall. But the time for change is way past due. The number of Americans who identify as Hispanic in the U.S. is slightly more than those who identify as black, so there's no excuse for the lack of Latino representation in American film.
In 1993, the gang film "Mi Vida Loca" set out to put Latinos on the film map. Then, nearly ten years later, came much buzzed about "Real Women Have Curves" in 2002. Despite the buzz these films got, Jennifer Lopez remains about the only American Latino film star that the public can name. As for Asian Americans, films like the much hyped "Better Luck Tomorrow" (2002) and "The Namesake" (2006) set out to give them more recognition, but Asian American actors remain under the film world's radar for the most part. Worsening matters is that in films based on true stories involving Asian Americans, such as 2008's "21," whites were cast to play the leads instead. Why is this acceptable in the 2000s? It's like Mr. Yunioshi from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) all over again, but without the buck teeth, taped eyes and exaggerated accent.
When Jesse Jackson staged his boycott of the Oscars in 1996, he shone a spotlight on the blackout of sorts taking place in U.S. film. Now, it's time we shine a light on why there's been a brown out and yellow out in American cinema year after year. A decade from now, do we really want to endure another Oscar nomination ceremony where the nominees include a handful of blacks, a few other people of color from foreign countries and no Asian American or American-born Latinos?