The Oscars, Race and Representation

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Frederick W. Gooding, Jr. (PhD, Georgetown University) is an Associate Professor within the Honors College at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. Gooding critically analyzes race within mainstream media, effectively contextualizing problematic patterns based upon their historical roots.

Gooding’s best-known work thus far is “You Mean, There’s RACE in My Movie? The Complete Guide to Understanding Race in Mainstream Hollywood,” which has been utilized in high schools and universities nationwide. Gooding has stayed focused on the practical applications of equity with his 2018 book, “American Dream Deferred” carefully detailing the growth and struggles of Black federal workers in the postwar era.

His latest work, “Black Oscar” (May 2020), expands his reach into cultural studies by analyzing African American Academy Award winners and how their narratives reflect and reinforce larger American history.

In connection with Dr. Gooding’s talk, here is a list of films spanning almost 100 years, some nominated for or winners of Oscars, and some that are in the canon of Black film history but were not recognized by the Academy.

Arranged chronologically, the list shows what stories and types of representation of Black people were considered award-worthy throughout the history of the Academy Awards and how that has changed – or not – due to the activism and protests of some in the movie industry.

The movies on the list are arranged in pairings – each duo includes one film recognized in the Oscar Ceremony, and one that was not, but remains culturally and popularly important as a representation of Black life. While long, please note that this represents only a small part of this topic in film history.

To hear more from Dr. Gooding, you can attend the Author Talk: Black Oscars virtual event on April 30th at 7 pm.

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The Girl From Chicago (1932)

An undercover agent falls in love with a young woman who is involved with the underworld of crime. They try to run away, but can’t disentangle themselves from tragedy. 

Nothing But a Man (1964)

This tells the story of Duff, a railroad section hand who is forced to confront racial prejudice and self-denial when he falls in love with Josie, an educated preacher’s daughter. An uplifting story about a man and a woman whose love overcomes racial and class barriers. 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Crusading newspaper publisher Matt Drayton’s liberal principles are put to the test when his daughter, Joey, announces her engagement to John Prentice, an internationally renowned African-American physician. 

Claudine (1974)

While struggling to support herself and her six children in Harlem by working as a maid for a wealthy family, Claudine meets a charming garbage man, Roop. But although Roop is smitten with the lovely single mother, his own life trials make him slow to respond to her invitation to a lifetime of love. 

Losing Ground (1982)

A comedy-drama about a Black American philosophy professor and her insensitive, philandering, and flamboyant artist husband who are having a marital crisis. 

 

The Color Purple (1985)

The story of a young Black girl in the early 20th century who is forced into a brutal marriage and separated from her sister. 

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Over the course of a single day, racial tensions rise in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, ultimately leading to violence. 

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Set in Atlanta in the 1950s, a textile factory owner insists on hiring an ever-patient chauffeur for his aging head-strong mother. The Jewish woman and her African American driver eventually build a relationship over many years.  

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Three friends have different reactions to growing up in South Central Los Angeles, where even a trip to the store can end in death. 

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

The story of a large African-American Gullah family as they prepare to move North from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia at the dawn of the 20th century. 

 

Love & Basketball (2000)

From the playground to the pro leagues, Monica and Quincy taught each other how to play the game. Now, their commitment to the sport will force them to make a choice between each other and the game. 

Monster’s Ball (2001)

Hank and Leticia inhabit stark, queasy realities of the contemporary South, he as a death row corrections officer and she as the soon-to-be widow of an inmate whose execution Hank helps conduct. In the aftermath of the execution, both lose their children to tragic deaths and they form an unlikely bond. You can also check out this title as video on Hoopla.

The Help (2011)

Mississippi during the 1960s: Skeeter, a southern society girl, returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends’ lives, and a small Mississippi town, upside down when she decides to interview the Black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. 

Middle of Nowhere (2012)

Devoted wife Ruby drops out of medical school after her husband Derek receives an eight-year prison sentence, and struggles to find the courage to remain faithful and supportive as the demands of being a prison wife weigh heavily on her shoulders. 

 

Fruitvale Station (2013)

The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008 and feels something in the air. Not sure what it is, he takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions. He starts out well, but as the day goes on, he realizes that change is not going to come easy. 

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup. It is 1841, and Northup, an accomplished, free citizen of New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Stripped of his identity and deprived of all dignity, Northup is ultimately purchased by ruthless plantation owner Edwin Epps and must find the strength within to survive. 

Tangerine (2014)

A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart. You can also check out this title as video on Hoopla.

Moonlight (2016)

A young Black man struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. You can also check out this title as video on Hoopla.

Get Out (2017)

A young African-American man meets his white girlfriend’s parents at their estate, only to find out that the situation is much more sinister than it appears. 

Sorry to Bother You (2017)

In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a macabre universe. 

Green Book (2018)

When Tony Lip, a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on a book to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. 

Clemency (2019)

Bernadine is a stoic prison warden, but two back-to-back executions put a strain on her marriage, career and convictions.