It’s 2016 in America and, oddly enough, more people of color are vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination than have been tabbed for acting awards at this year’s Oscars. To some, how many black, Latino or Asian actors aren’t nominated for an acting award is a trivial matter. It’s a small thing, like a termite. But to others, it’s another termite for the colony that eats away at the wood-frame foundation the country was built upon. Another termite to chew at some gargantuan, imaginary wooden wall at the U.S.-Mexican border. Whether you choose to see the termites or not is up to you. The point is, they’re still there, gnawing away.
This is the problem the Academy Awards is facing this month. Its musical sibling also honors its very best in February, but there’s no such discussion attached to the Grammys. America's race issues are pervasive, so music’s top honors have sometimes dealt with these concerns; see Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore just two Februaries ago. However, arguably, that misstep was more about the cluelessness that seems to plague the Grammys than any genuine racial issue.
And that’s the way it’s been since the Grammys' inception in the 1950s. For the most part, music’s highest honors have appreciated the contributions of its diverse artists in a way the Oscars still can’t seem to. Founded in 1929, the Academy Awards preceded the Grammys by 29 years. During those years, one black actor won an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind. The only Latino winners were Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, who won twice. The Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki won 1957’s Supporting Actress Oscar. That’s a quartet of non-white winners over 30 years and hundreds of total acting nominations.
In its first year, the Grammys had half as many major award winners of color than the Oscars could muster over four decades to that point. By the time Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1964, major-category Grammy winners included Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Chubby Checker, Mahalia Jackson and Quincy Jones. And by the time Denzel Washington became the second black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, it was an entirely different century and music had introduced us to and honored transcendent and influential artists like Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, Public Enemy, Yo-Yo Ma, Selena and Beyoncé.
The difference in diversity and its effect on these awards events is inordinate, but what’s to account for it?
One difference could be as simple as timing. When the Academy Awards debuted, the United States was less progressive with respect to race issues, a condition that lingered for years with both the nation and the Oscars. When the Grammys premiered in 1958, it was freshly on the heels of Brown v. Board of Education; Rosa Parks had just made her defiant and courageous statement in Montgomery, Alabama; and Elvis and Little Richard were thrilling fans who had crossed over color lines to enjoy their music. From the start, the diversity of Grammy nominations and winners reflected what was happening at the moment.
That continues to be a difference between the awards. This year’s Album of the Year nominees include Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Unless they totally blow it — which is a possibility, judging from past results — Grammy’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar is going to be awarded to an album that has been called “overwhelmingly black” and “deeply powerful.” The album’s central theme of personal growth is universal and timeless, the way the best art created by any artist of any background should be.
By contrast, recent Oscar nominations to people of color, or projects that include them, haven’t been so forward-looking. In this decade, two black actors have won Oscars, the Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o and Octavia Spencer, both in supporting roles. Spencer played a housemaid in a 1960s-period piece, essentially the same award Oscar gave McDaniel 63 years earlier. Nyong’o starred in a film about slavery. You’re definitely going to see nominations for Birth of a Nation in 2017, a film by a black director that was the buzz of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. That movie is about the Nat Turner slave revolt, which means yet another film about the dehumanization of slavery and the white guilt associated with it will be lauded.
Where are the films that depict the complex and modern lives of people of color in the present-day United States? There were at least a few in 2015 that received enough critical acclaim to have garnered at least one nomination – Concussion, Creed and Tangerine, to name a few. Beasts of No Nation addressed concerns abroad, but was widely acclaimed also. Those films resulted in a lone Oscar nomination, for Sylvester Stallone.
Some of my first memories about music are the ones I shared with my parents. We had a cabinet stereo record player, and one of my favorite things to do as a kid was to dig deep into those cabinets for albums. This was the late 1960s or early ’70s, and their bin was filled with Elvis, Otis, Jim Croce, Dylan, Motown, James Brown and Little Joe and Sunny Osuna. Those albums weren’t purchased because the people on the covers looked like us; my parents bought them because the music was incredible.
But when La Bamba appeared in theaters in 1987, my parents treated it like a significant moment and took us all to see the film. Not because they loved Ritchie Valens (they did, of course – who doesn’t?) but because the people onscreen actually looked like us, which was an anomaly in 1987. That they treated the drama Mi Familia the same way nearly a decade later – and just 20 short years ago – says a lot about how few opportunities are afforded to minorities in the American film industry.
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A cynic would say the only color that matters in these pursuits is green. If it sells, it plays. The American music industry has again catered to this notion much better than its film counterpart. Look no further than the beleaguered Iggy Azalea and the money she makes by posturing in a way that's uncommon in her native Australia. Whether it’s right or wrong is up for debate. But what is telling is that a young, white Australian woman found black American culture so enthralling that she patterned her own artistic endeavors after it. That’s called influence and, like it or not, it’s abundant in American music. It’s missing from American film.
There has never been a year in Grammy history when a person of color has failed to win a statuette. That’s because everyone has a stake in American music, something that can't be said for American film. By the time someone got around to recognizing the best in American music in the second half of the 20th century, the country’s musical roots had been planted and cultivated by a nation of immigrants who brought sounds and rhythms from their respective homelands. There were mariachi-styled trumpets on Johnny Cash songs, and Ray Charles’s piano soul in Jerry Lee Lewis’s early hits. Whole genres of American music, most notably jazz and blues, formed from this melting pot.
The reason fruit bloomed for the Grammys and didn’t remain stagnant in the hard earth like the Oscars’ seeds is that everyone had a hand in nurturing what was being grown. It’s by and for us all. There’s a communal partnership to American music that remains absent in American film. But don’t speak too loudly of this shared ownership, lest Hollywood churn out a movie about Civil War-era sharecroppers.