The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The unbearable whiteness of the Oscars: The sequel

January 27, 2011 |  2:02 pm

Academy_awards I've been deluged with mail taking issue with the story I wrote after Tuesday's Oscar nominations decrying the fact that, once again, the Oscars were an all-white affair, leaving African American and Latino actors and filmmakers in the lurch. Put simply, the fault lies not with the Oscars, but with the Hollywood studio elite who don't have any people of color in their ranks, which clearly has a bearing on why they rarely greenlight Oscar-friendly dramas with any substantial roles for blacks or Latinos.

As for the reaction from readers, let's just say that I suspect Christopher Hitchens must've gotten the same kind of mail after he mocked Mother Teresa. Although I've received some warm letters of support, by and large the response from readers has been blunt, dismissive, vituperative and, well, unfriendly. A fair example would be this note from D. Whitehead in Chicago, who said:

I would just like to know what was the reason behind you writing this Minority Report of Hollywood? Aren't there enough black civil rights leaders to handle this without you sticking your nose where it doesn't belong? What about the dominance in the sports by African Americans? You ever watch basketball, football and baseball? Who are you? Jesse Jackson Goldstein?

Actually, baseball has fewer African Americans that at any time since the 1970s. And I'm not sure why a heavy presence of blacks in one field would justify turning a blind eye to the absence of blacks in another. But I'm not going to pick a fight with D. Whitehead.  Some of the questions that readers raised, however, were more thoughtful and provocative. Here's a few -- rephrased and condensed -- that deserved an answer. And if you have any more thoughts on the subject, feel free to chime in:

Q: You didn't say African Americans were discriminated against in Hollywood, just that they didn't hold any high-profile jobs. Did you ever consider that blacks just don't gravitate toward working in show business?

A: Fair point. There's little evidence of overt discrimination in Hollywood. It was probably true 40 or 50 years ago, but not today. But blacks do gravitate toward other areas of show business. The music business, for example, is far more multicultural than Hollywood, with all sorts of African Americans having success as producers and record company executives. The difference is that the music biz has always been more open to entrepreneurs than Hollywood, so there's a more clear path to success for people with both creative and business smarts, be they Berry Gordy or Sean Combs or Jay-Z. Hollywood is more of an insular culture, but not necessarily a closed one.

Q: Hollywood is famously full of do-gooder liberals. Isn't it a sign of total hypocrisy for all these studios and talent agencies to be so lily white at the top when they all give money in their private lives to a host of social causes?

A: I can't disagree with you there. While conservatives aren't free of hypocrisy, the absence of any minorities in top-tier Hollywood is a major embarrassment for the industry. You have to practice what you preach, or you shouldn't be preaching, whether you're trying to promote diversity in education without doing it in the workplace or going to environmental fundraisers one week and flying to New York by private jet the next. People in Hollywood give a lot of money to good causes, but it's time for a reality check. They should be putting some of that social consciousness into improving their own industry's track record when it comes to diversity.

Q: When you compared the whiteness of Hollywood to other areas in our society, you led off by citing the advances African Americans had made in sports. Isn't that stereotyping?

A: Actually, I started with sports because I'm a big sports fan. But sports is a great model for diversity. In 1947, long before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Branch Rickey integrated baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When USC running back Sam Cunningham almost single-handedly humiliated a top-ranked all-white Alabama football team in 1970, Alabama finally began the process of integrating Southern football, with one of Coach Bear Bryant's assistants saying that Cunningham "did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years." You change culture by making an impact on things that matter to people, and in the South, where I'm from, everything starts with sports. So for me, the fact that sports is full of black head coaches and general managers while Hollywood still hasn't hired one African American studio chief is all the more cause for embarrassment. 

-- Patrick Goldstein


Photo: Mo'Nique, left, with academy President Tom Sherak at the Academy Awards nominations announcement Tuesday in Beverly Hills.

Credit: Mike Lee / Landov/MCT