In 1996, there was only one African-American nominee at the Academy Awards out of a total of 166. Her name was Dianne Houston, and she had directed a live-action short film called Tuesday Morning Ride. That was it. Actors like Morgan Freeman and Don Cheadle were overlooked that year in favor of Kevin Spacey and Nicolas Cage. The Oscars and the movie industry in general were so overwhelmingly white that People, normally dismissed as a gossipy lightweight of a magazine, published a damning, thoroughly researched 3,000-word cover story called “Hollywood Blackout.” In a freshly composed piece for The New Republic, writer Esther Breger revisits that 20-year-old People story and the ensuing controversy it created, including an underwhelming protest organized by Jesse Jackson. Hollywood is just as homogeneous today as it was two decades ago, Breger finds. What has changed dramatically in the ensuing 20 years is perception, both on behalf of the public and the motion picture industry.
In 1996, when Jesse Jackson accused the Academy Awards of being racist and attempted to organize a protest outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on the night of the ceremony, the media and the movie industry reacted by scoffing at Jackson’s charges and dismissing the entire controversy as silly. The Academy’s executive director claimed there just weren’t enough “marvelous performances” worth nominating by black actors the previous year. Variety weirdly put the blame on O.J. Simpson and informed Jackson that “protests and picketing are passé.” Saturday Night Live mocked Jackson in a bit that now plays like something out of a minstrel show. Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg, fuming at Jackson and not eager to be perceived as a beneficiary of tokenism, reduced the protest to a joke in her monologue. Jackson’s campaign fizzled, and he moved on to other issues. Flash forward to 2016, when social media users responded to the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. This time, the complaints were not dismissed or trivialized, and the Academy seems serious about making lasting, meaningful changes to its voting policies. Quite a contrast from 1996. “The most important difference between the ‘Hollywood Blackout’ of 1996 and today,” Breger writes, “may be what happens next.”