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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT