When Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win an Oscar for best leading man in 1963, much of America was scandalised as the actress Anne Bancroft presented him with the award and gave him a congratulatory kiss on the cheek.
To many, such inter-racial contact was taboo.
Today, when so many of the most successful people in showbiz — and in all other walks of life — are of ethnic origin, such a reaction seems grotesque.
But it must be seen in the historical context. Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had first begun its annual ceremony to honour the acting world in 1929, no other black man or woman had been similarly feted.
Indeed, at that time in America, in the Sixties, racial harmony was a very long way from being established and the decade witnessed 750 inner-city race riots in which 228 people were killed, 12,700 injured and many black urban neighbourhoods destroyed.
For his part, Poitier, who won his Oscar in the film Lilies Of The Field (in which he played a construction worker who a group of nuns believe was sent to them by God to build their church), was typically modest about his landmark achievement.
With much understatement, he said: ‘It has been a long journey to this moment.’
But it now seems that ‘long journey’ is far from complete.
Ever since Poitier’s triumph, only four black actors (Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker and Halle Berry) have won in the best actor or actress category. That’s five black actors in 87 years of Oscars history (although ten other actors of colour have won for best supporting roles).
And now that has been compounded by the failure of a single minority performer to figure in the 20 acting nominations for the 88th ceremony next month.
This has led the president of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to say she’s ‘heartbroken and frustrated’ about the lack of inclusion. She also promised that the Academy will review its membership recruitment process ‘to bring about much-needed diversity’ in future nominations. I feel foolish in having to even point out that Ms Boone Isaacs is black.
Director Spike Lee has gone further than Ms Boone Isaacs, saying he will boycott what he describes as the ‘lily white’ awards.
I share some of their angst, but I don’t feel heartbroken about this year’s nominations. The simple fact is that the Oscars must celebrate and honour the best. And, I’m afraid, in my view, the movies this year with black actors and black film-makers aren’t of that high quality.
The only exceptions are Idris Elba’s charismatic performance as a warlord in Beast Of No Nation (based on the experiences of a child soldier fighting in a civil war in Africa) and the boxing movie Creed.
That is not to deny, though, that the membership of the Academy (who choose the Oscar nominations) is not a serious problem.
It should never be the case that there must be a film representing people of colour no matter what. In an ideal world, yes, of course, art should reflect our society. This happened with the brilliant 12 Years A Slave — which won three Oscars.
What we certainly don’t want is well-meaning tokenism — the sort of attitude: ‘Oh, look, there are some black dudes in a half-decent movie, let’s nominate them for an Academy Award.’ That’s patronising and utterly offensive.
Year after year, I stand on the red carpet in the hours leading up to the annual awards ceremony in Los Angeles, and watch the mostly white membership glide by. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times made a study of the membership in 2012 and found that those who vote for the Oscars are nearly 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male. Blacks represent just 2 per cent and Latinos fewer than 2 per cent.
The Academy should not follow the route of positive discrimination, or stipulations on how many nominations should go to minorities. That would fatally devalue the awards. Indeed, there is a slight suspicion that such a policy was pursued — albeit unofficially — in 2001 when Denzel Washington won best actor for Training Day (about Los Angeles drugs enforcement officers). The actress Julia Roberts, for example, worked feverishly behind the scenes for him to become the first black actor to win the award since Sidney Poitier.
Although the movie was a perfectly good cop thriller with a perfectly good performance by Washington, it wasn’t necessarily memorable. I’m sure he won because some people deemed it was time a black man won again and that’s how the campaign went.
In all honesty, as much as I love Mr Poitier, Lilies Of The Field wasn’t one of his best films, either. It’s almost as if history will decide who the best actors are — not the quality of the films themselves. This year, many thought Straight Outta Compton would fit the ‘black film for Oscar’ bill. The movie is about how hip-hop pioneers Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy E set up the rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) in Los Angeles in the late Eighties.
There are some good scenes, but it falls apart after 40 minutes and, frankly, for a few moments I thought I was watching a commercial for Dr Dre’s branded headphones. The film let itself down.
However, I feel sad that Idris Elba wasn’t nominated. Although lauded by the Screen Actors Guild and Bafta for awards, one reason the Academy may have denied him could be that his film, Beasts Of No Nation, was made for the streaming service Netflix and was only shown in a limited number of cinemas for a short time and, clearly, not enough Academy members viewed it on the DVDs they were sent.
Some critics have said that Michael B. Jordan’s turn as boxer Adonis Johnson in Creed should also have been nominated. I don’t disagree and think, perhaps, the film’s black director and writer Ryan Coogler should have been considered, too.
Instead, a white actor — Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balbao, the sentimental favourite — will represent the movie at the Oscar ceremony on February 28 as best supporting actor nominee.
Such a nomination has triggered much belly-aching as part of the so-called ‘Oscars So White’ backlash.
For example, black actress Jada Pinkett Smith has spoken out on behalf of husband Will Smith, who failed to obtain an Academy Award citation for his portrayal of a Nigerian-born pathologist in the film Concussion. Like Spike Lee, she said that she and her husband will boycott the Awards.
Concussion is an amiable picture and Smith’s performance is OK-ish — but it’s definitely not Oscar-worthy. His attempt at a Nigerian accent is woeful. I’d rather listen to Lenny Henry’s Katanga any day.
What’s more, the black actress Janet Hubert — who did 74 episodes of the TV sitcom Fresh Prince Of Bel Air (about a Californian family) with Will Smith — pointedly rebuked Pinkett Smith.
She said there were other important issues in the world. ‘People are dying. Our boys are being shot left and right. People are starving. People are trying to pay bills. And you’re talking about some motherf***ing actors and Oscars. It just ain’t that deep.'
Nevertheless, it is worth recalling that the 2014 Oscars were a banner year for black talent, with 12 Years A Slave winning best picture, best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o and best adapted screenplay.
Two years before, Octavia Spencer won for The Help and Viola Davis (The Help) was in a titanic battle for the best actress crown with Meryl Streep, who pipped her for her role as Mrs Thatcher in the Iron Lady, but Davis’s career took off like a rocket.
Last year, I was rooting for David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma but, in a major oversight, the British actor was denied a nomination that was truly deserved.
No wonder, perhaps, that this week he stated it was ‘unforgiveable’ that no black actors had been nominated for the second year in a row.
The fact is that the history of film is full of movies and performances involving people of all races who should have been considered for Oscars but who weren’t.
Sometimes, I play a little game — listing my favourite 20 movies and then working out which won a best-film Oscar. I usually get half wrong.
The one I always get wrong is Singin’ In The Rain. It was beaten, in 1953, by The Greatest Show On Earth. And who remembers that?
As for Singin’ In The Rain, it wasn’t even nominated for best picture. And it had a cast full of white actors!