Is Hollywood A Western Weapon Against Pan-Africanism?

Sidney Poitier with his Oscar Statuette at the 36th Annual Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California, for Best Actor for his role in "Lilies of the Field," in 1963. Image: Associated Press

Many critics argue that Hollywood is a weapon of the West to fight against the promotion of Black African history and Pan-African heroes.



Black people receive the least lead roles in Hollywood, with only 11%

Movies with Black People receive the lowest investment in both production and promotion

Critics fault what they say is a deliberate action by the Academy to sideline movies that centre around Pan-African Heroes for awards

Critics also argue that Hollywood is a weapon in the hands of the West to silence Pan-Africanism

On the surface, it doesn’t appear that any form of discrimination against Blacks exists in Hollywood. Mainly because actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington – or, even much earlier, Sidney Poitier have received leading roles – have won prominent awards over the years.

However, critics say that that is more than meets the eye and that Hollywood may be likened to an apple that is fresh on the outside but rotten in the core. They argue that racial discrimination has been part and parcel of Hollywood since its inception.

Only a few black roles existed in films at the beginning of the 20th century, and whites, such as Uncle Tom, initially portrayed them. At the end of the 1920s, Afro-American roles were still played by whites and civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), fought the way African-Americans were treated in the movie world.

But critics say that there still exists a huge disparity on the grounds of colour in Hollywood. A report released by McKinsey & Company revealed that while their overall representation among film casts is broadly in line with the Black share of the US population, Black actors play only 11 per cent of leading film roles and are often funnelled to race-related projects, which typically receive lower investment in both production and promotion.

What is even more disturbing, they say, is the way and manner stories with strong pan-African imprints are treated. Is Hollywood a weapon of the hands of erstwhile colonial masters to fight the publicity and promotion of African history and Pan-Africanism through film?
The Academy Awards Says It All

Academy Awards, popularly known as “Oscar” — the award of the American Academy of Cinema — is the most famous and prestigious award in the filmmaking industry, both domestic and international. The first award ceremony, “Oscar”, was held in 1929.

However, it took until 1964 before a Black man won an Oscar. Sidney Poitier was the first Black winner of a Lead Actor Oscar in 1964. At the 36th Academy Awards, held in Los Angeles to celebrate the best films of 1963, the comedy Tom Jones took home the Best Film award, but it was in the acting category that history was truly made.

Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the movie, “Lilies of the Field”. After this, the American Film Institute named him one of the Greatest Male Stars of all time.

Since then, some African American actors have won Oscars – with Eddie Murphy once famously saying African Americans get an Oscar once every twenty years. Another area where critics have accused the Academy of racial discrimination is in the category in which the Blacks received the awards.

Lilies of the Field was a Comedy/Drama, and it appears – according to critics – that when the movie's theme is more about African history and Pan-Africanism, an Oscar is often hard to come by.
The Denzel Washington Theory

Critics have developed a theory that states Hollywood is against the promotion and publicity of stories about African history and pan-African heroes. In the centre of the theory is none other than one of Black Africa’s most talented actors to ever grace the movie screen – Denzel Washington.

Denzel Washington remains the most nominated Black actor in Oscars history, with 10 Academy Award nominations. Of the ten nominations, Mr Denzel has only won the award twice – one for the movie Glory – released in 1989, where he played an enslaved person, and Training Day – released in 2001, where he played a rogue cop.

Critics say that other movies like the 1987 movie Cry Freedom – where he played Steve Biko, the 1992 movie titled Malcolm X, where he played Malcolm X; and the 1999 movie – The Hurricane – where he played Ruben Carter, all deserved Oscar awards. Interestingly, the Black American actor was nominated for an Oscar in all three movies but won none.

According to critics, there appears to be more than meets the eye. They claim that he did not get Oscars for these movies because of the underlining stories of the characters – who all pass across as heroes of Pan-Africanism.
Denzel Washington is Not Alone

Apart from Denzel, there are many other Black American actors whom critics claim have been marginalized due to the colour of their skin or the type of character they portrayed in movies.

Spike Lee once used unprintable words when asked about Selma’s snub at the 2015 Academy Awards. It’s a difficult sentiment to disagree with. It was baffling to see Selma – the soaring portrayal of a key turning point in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement – nominated for Best Picture, with only one other nomination – for Best Original Song.

Critics were bewildered that the movie could be nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, any of the supporting categories, script, or costume. The movie was so good that Common and John Legend won an Oscar for a song in the film – Glory. Yet the movie was conspicuously ignored for all the other categories it was nominated in.

But again, many critics were not too surprised. Selma only joined the long list of Black American movies that have been ignored over time for international recognition. The Academy ignored Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying performance as James Brown in Get On Up (2014) and Chris Rock’s razor-sharp delivery in Top Five (2014).

Other movies that have been ignored by the Academy and other top Hollywood award organizers include; Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction (1994), John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood (1991), Gabourey Sidible’s Precious (2009), Quvenzhane Wallis’ Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Sidney Poitier’s In The Heat of the Night (1982), Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993), Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), Ryan Coogler, Octavia Spencer, and Michael B Jordan in Fruitvale Station (2013), Ava Duvernay for Selma (2015). The list goes on.