Dreamgirls, the big, brash, black musical based on the story of the Supremes and the rise of Motown, garnered eight Academy Award nominations but failed to score in Best Picture category. Every report I’ve read or heard this morning about the nominations has begun, more or less, with that same sentence. While trying to figure out how Dreamgirls could possibly be excluded, one ugly unavoidable answer keeps popping into my head.
Consider these facts: DG just got the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. The Academy itself gave an enthusiastic nod to Eddie Murphy as Best Actor and Jennifer Hudson as Best Actress. Reviews of DG were fairly ecstatic: David Denby wrote in the New Yorker, “The sigh you will hear across the country in the next few weeks is the sound of a gratified audience: a great movie musical has been made at last.” Denby goes on to praise DG as being infinitely better than Chicago, which won Best Picture in 2002. (Bill Condon, who adapted the Chicago show script for film, did the same for DG.)
I don’t like accusing any institution of racism. But consider these facts: When Denzel Washington got the Best Actor award in 2001, it had been nearly 40 years since the first African-American man (Sidney Poitier) received the honor. That same year Halle Berry made history as the first African-American woman to win for Best Actress. Film-going audiences are frequently as segregated as musical audiences were in the days of Race Records: two of the three times I went to see The Five Heartbeats I was the only white person in the theater—scandalous, considering it’s about rock n roll. I didn’t see Set it Off until it was available for rent; when I did I was stunned that nobody had ever recommended it, and I began spreading the word. I’ve now seen Set it Off several times, and so has everyone who knows me; it’s an incredibly moving story of four ghetto girls turned bank robbers, with a stellar performance by Queen Latifah as a rambunctious teenage dyke.
I hate to think that Academy members feel threatened by African-American works of excellence. But consider a few more relevant facts: The cast of Dreamgirls is almost entirely African-American. The story it’s based on—Berry Gordy and Motown—is a piece of African-American history. Not a single chord of bubble-gum music, or one corny Broadway show tune, is sung in DG: the songs are deep down gut-wrenching expressions of soul. Jennifer Hudson just about rips her skin off during her delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” frequently cited by critics as the peak of the movie.
A few years ago Jesse Jackson, outraged by systematic neglect of African-Americans in Hollywood, led a boycott of the Academy Awards. I can’t wait to find out what he has to say about this latest bit of apparent racism. Maybe Denzel and Halle satisfied him. But I can’t see how: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry got their due because Hollywood was finally willing to honor a couple of African-Americans as individual actors. But an entire cast? A piece of black history devoid of slaves or brutal victimization? Uh uh. Not ready, folks. Give it another few years, or even decades. I know that change is slow and incremental. But I don’t like seeing a movie like Dreamgirls lose out for reasons beyond artistic merit.
Note: December 23rd: All of a sudden I’m getting tons of hits to this post–and then I realized, it’s because the movie’s now showing on HBO, and maybe the DVD came out on it too. So I watched it today, and I still feel the same way. Dreamgirls is a truly wonderful musical in the best Hollywood tradition, and has never gotten half the credit it deserves.
- Oscar nominations an all-white affair (canada.com)
- Movie biz worsens for African-Americans: Spike Lee (cbc.ca)