Skip to main content

Who really runs Hollywood?

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 11:36 AM EST, Thu January 23, 2014
<strong>Best picture nominees: </strong>"American Hustle" (pictured), <strong>"</strong>12 Years a Slave," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," "Her," "Gravity," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Philomena" Best picture nominees: "American Hustle" (pictured), "12 Years a Slave," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," "Her," "Gravity," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Philomena"
HIDE CAPTION
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
86th Academy Awards nominations
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: If Steve McQueen wins, he will be the first black director to get an Oscar
  • Kohn: No black women, only two other black men have been nominated for best director
  • Kohn: Only four white women nominated for director: As far as we've come, this is pathetic
  • Kohn: Movies show racial struggles of the past but neglect to take a look at the present

Editor's note: Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator, is a progressive activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter at @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- Hollywood is in full awards season mode. This past weekend, the Producer's Guild granted its first tie for its best picture award, bestowing the honor on "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." This weekend, the Director's Guild will hand out its awards, for which "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen is a strong favorite.

If McQueen takes home the Oscar at next month's Academy Awards, he will be the first black director to receive that honor — ever. Which is a pathetic reflection of the far deeper and more enduring inequalities in American society today.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

It wasn't until 1991, the 64th presentation of the Academy Awards, that a black director was even nominated: John Singleton for "Boyz in the Hood." Only one black director has been nominated since: Lee Daniels in 2009 for "Precious."

Meanwhile, excluding Steve McQueen this year, only four black men have been nominated as producers for best picture: Quincy Jones for "The Color Purple" in 1985, Lee Daniels for "Precious," Broderick Johnson for "The Blind Side" in 2009, and Reginald Hudlin for "Django Unchained" in 2012. That's it. None won. And no black women have ever been nominated as either directors or producers.

The record isn't much better for white women, incidentally. Before Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win the Oscar for best director -- in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker" -- only three women had ever been nominated: Lina Wertmüller for "Seven Beauties" in 1976, Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993 and Sofia Coppola for "Lost In Translation" in 2003. And the bigger box office films, including many nominated for Academy Awards, tend not to include female producers.

Steve McQueen's Oscar-worthy scene?
Hanks, Redford shut out of Oscars

One might be forgiven for thinking the 86th annual Academy Awards are taking place in 1886. As far as we've supposedly come as a society — a black president, more women in the workplace, the important legislative and cultural accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the women's movement — that's all? Three black directors, four white female directors and a handful of executive producers between them? Seriously?

These discouraging patterns in the Oscar nominations and awards are a reminder that social progress can be disturbingly superficial. Just like the world around us, our movie screens appear to be increasingly more diverse. Incredibly talented actors of color are at times portraying profound roles in plots that relate to the struggle for racial justice in America, usually through the lens of our past -- from "Driving Miss Daisy" to "Django Unchained" -- rather than an uncomfortable and critical look at our present. Yet Hollywood fails to regularly create, let alone celebrate, any near-significant number of critically and commercially successful films created by black directors and producers with as much power and pull in Hollywood as their white counterparts.

When Chris Rock hosted the Oscars in 2005, he took a camera crew to a movie theater in Harlem in New York and asked audience members if they'd heard of that year's Academy Award-nominated films. They hadn't. Rock simply and powerfully illustrated the profound disconnect between black America and the Hollywood elite. Rock was not invited to host the Oscars again.

These observations no doubt lead to chicken-vs.-egg debates. After all, plenty of financially successful films each year are produced and directed by black men and women -- though mostly men. So is it that these movies don't make it into the critical pantheon of the Academy Awards? Or black producers and directors don't have the same opportunities to create films in the more elite genres? Does the reason even matter or just the result? By the same token, does Hollywood exclude women and people of color in powerful director and producer roles more than other facets of American business and society? Probably not, but who cares? That doesn't make the critique any less worth leveling.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for her role in "Gone With The Wind." In 1968, Sidney Poitier became one of the first African-American actors to achieve major box office success in a leading role, with a string of hits that year, including "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner."

But both black actors, and most since, have been fictionally and literally in white men's houses; white men still very much disproportionately occupy the real seats of power in Hollywood and beyond.

Kudos to Steve McQueen for challenging this tired script. I hope his truly excellent film wins both best picture and best director. But more important, here's hoping the behind-the-scenes levers of power in Hollywood start reflecting more inclusive plot lines appropriate for 21st century America.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT