Black Oscars Come to an End

For more than 25 years, black actors in Hollywood have held a secret awards ceremony the night before the Academy Awards. Newsweek entertainment reporter Allison Samuels talks about how the awards recently ended, after black actors gained more recognition by the Academy.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

You got to love to dream. Five black actors will see if their dreams come true for Oscars during the Academy Awards this Sunday. But for decades, African-Americans were overlooked on Oscar night. So for more than 25 years, Tinseltown's black elite secretly gathered the night before the Academy Awards to honor each other for a Black Oscars.

Now many people didn't know about this affair, including myself, until Newsweek's entertainment reporter Allison Samuels recently broke the story. Now that more black actors are getting Oscar nominations, the secret society cancelled the Black Oscars. Allison told me what she witnessed at the galas of the past.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (Entertainment Reporter, Newsweek): I started going probably about seven or eight years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. Someone just invited me once and, you know, it was like, okay, let me go. And I was just surprised because to have everyone in black Hollywood in this room and for the press not to know about it, the press is usually not invited.

But anyway, I got in, and to realize that the press didn't get wind of it for all those years was just amazing to me. But it was, you know, it's always a fabulous sight.

CHIDEYA: So dish a little bit for me. Were these awards ones that were a standard award for everyone or were there categories like Most Likely to Succeed, you know, Best Dressed in a Dance Sequence? I mean -

Ms. SAMUELS: No, no. It was always, you know, a best performance in a film. You know, Denzel won for "Training Day." He won for "Malcolm X." He won for any movie he's ever done, he won an award. The same with Sam Jackson, someone who, you know, doesn't get nominated for Oscars much.

You know, John Singleton won for best director; it's basically the same kind of categories that you had at the Academy, just not given by the Academy. So this year - and last year they didn't have it and this year they're probably not going to have it because they sort of feel like the Academy, you know, the Black Oscars are going to be at the Kodak this year, because you're going to have probably three Oscar winners that are African-American.

You know, that's not written in stone, but I think there's a pretty good chance of Forest Whitaker will win. I think that's - pretty much everybody thinks that, and that Jennifer Hudson will win; and Eddie, you know, Murphy, we'll see. But I think all three of them will win. That's my personal opinion.

CHIDEYA: Does it make you sad a little bit that this tradition is gone?

Ms. SAMUELS: It does, but you know, it's interesting because I talked to Jamie Foxx about this, asking him, you know, with the Essence awards and all these other awards that do the same type of thing, would he stop going now that the Oscars was acknowledging him? And he was saying no, he would always go when his people, you know, sort of, you know, celebrated him. That's what I loved about the Black Oscars. It didn't matter how big you were - Denzel, Will Smith, they came every year. I mean it was an insult not to come.

I remember one year, Cuba Gooding Jr. was invited and he didn't come and that was just this big taboo. It was like, you know, how could you not show up? The same with Halle Berry during "Monster's Ball," she didn't attend. And you know, Puffy took - accepted her award but it was definitely this quiet, like how could she not attend? And I don't know if she understood the importance of it, because like I said, it's so quiet and if you're not really in the industry, you might not know about it, particularly the African-American part.

CHIDEYA: So you mentioned that it was started by a couple. I'm assuming you didn't say their names because they don't want their names broadcast.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right. It's definitely - they consider the secret society in many ways and the only reason that we're talking more about it now is because they're not really doing it anymore.

But yeah, just a couple who had, you know, financially secure, had a lot of friends in Hollywood and just decided, you know, with the Sidney Poitiers and people like that - because they're in that age group - we want to have this event where we can just really sit and talk among ourselves, talk about the issues and not have a glare. We're just really happy.

CHIDEYA: So in addition to being financially secure, they must have had quite a large house to host this event.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right. Well, they'd moved it on to a hotel.

CHIDEYA: Oh.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And it still stayed secret.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. You know, part of that, and this is maybe sort of on my part, I don't know if African-American celebrities get the same type of attention that mainstream celebrities do. I think about that all the time when I'm looking at In Touch and US magazine and those kind of publications, where they don't cover closely these major stars like Denzel. And it's not that these guys don't have things going on that are interesting; I just think the mainstream press doesn't really care.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of mainstream, you did mention that African-Americans are really in a poll position this Oscars. Five African-Americans up for big awards. Is this time to break out the champagne and celebrate?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think, as everyone I talked to when I did the story, you have to be cautiously optimistic, because we did have a period of time in the '70s where you had Diana Ross and, you know, Diahann Carroll nominated for Oscars for Best Actress, and you know, 30 years, 20 years before that happened again.

So the big difference I think now is that you have many more people in power, many more people in control. You have a Will Smith who can greenlight a film and get it made from the book to the script to the screen. You have people like Lee Daniels and John Singleton and Spike Lee, who can create a role for Jennifer Hudson, which is what will have to have but, I think, for her to maintain her stardom. It's such a fairytale for her now, but my constant question is where will she be in a year, because if Hollywood doesn't back it up with roles -

CHIDEYA: Right.

Ms. SAMUELS: - will she remain a star?

CHIDEYA: Why are black women not doing better? You have Jennifer Hudson nominated, but not a lot of women of color up there.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: What's going on with the black girls?

Ms. SAMUELS: As an African-American woman, you're not going to be Tom Cruise's girlfriend. Salma Hayek or somebody can be Tom Cruise's girlfriend, but they're not going to put an African-American in that role. And I think until we get to that point, where African-American women are viewed, as, you know, beauty queens and, you know, women of desire - and I think that's why someone like Tyler Perry is great, because he's making a movie with Gabrielle Union, "Daddy's Little Girl," where she is the lead actress. And there are so few movies with black women in the lead roles.

CHIDEYA: Now, sometimes there's this Oscar boomerang where people win and they actually get less work.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: You wrote that Louis Gossett, Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for "An Officer and A Gentleman," and he hasn't gotten a strong role since. I know that he has spoken publicly about his heartbreak -

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: - over how he was not embraced by the film community after he won.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: Does that sort of thing still happen? Is there a potential Oscar curse?

Ms. SAMUELS: I mean, I think so. I look at Halle Berry. I'm not impressed with what she's done after her Oscar win. I remember -

CHIDEYA: You mean you didn't love "Catwoman"?

Ms. SAMUELS: No. I didn't love "Catwoman." I didn't like that or "Gothika" or whatever, the last movie she did. And Louis Gossett, I mean you think about - that was like 1982, '83, so he was well before his time, I think, in that. But with an African-American woman, I think it's even harder to get a quality role that the Academy will sort of respond to.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask you this. Some people say that "Norbit" is actually hurting Eddie Murphy's chances of getting an Oscar. What do you think about that?

Ms. SAMUELS: That was an unfortunate film. And I'm really not sure if he made it before - I'm just unclear on what period in his career did he made that movie. But I don't know. I think they are giving him an award if they give it to him for his body of work and his time in Hollywood. I would assume Academy members didn't even go see that movie.

CHIDEYA: It's certainly not the same kind of role he played in -

Ms. SAMUELS: In "Dreamgirls," and he's such a talented guy. And I sort of don't really understand, you know, it's sort of like he - that's the comfort zone for him to play these characters where, you know, he has to sort of exaggerate African-American women. And that's the part that's sort of disturbing. And I think that's what a lot of people were upset about.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm sure that you will have a fabulous party to go to. Just remember, don't wear shoes that are going to make you cry.

Ms. SAMUELS: I won't. Okay.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. Are you telling the truth?

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Because I know how L.A. women are with those shoes.

Ms. SAMUELS: No. Well, you know, I have a plan where I'd change them while I'm sitting down. You know what I mean? I have plan. I have it all worked out.

CHIDEYA: You've got the flip-flops in the bag.

Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you. Yes. I have to do that. Yes.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, have a great Oscar night.

Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Newsweek's Allison Samuels. And that's all for us at NEWS & NOTES.

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