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Black actors can flourish in films that aren’t about race

Will Hampton | 3/3/2017, 6 a.m.

Sunday night’s Academy Award winners for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Supporting Actress Actress (Viola Davis) both starred in roles in which their race played a key factor. In fact, every black actor and actress nominated for an Oscar this year starred in films about being black. “Fences,” “Loving,” “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” all contained racial themes to one degree or another.

This is nothing new for the Academy Awards. When black actors are nominated, race is almost always a theme of their performance. In fact every single black winner for best actor, actress, supporting actor or supporting actress won for a film in which their race was at least alluded to. These actors don’t win for playing people, they win for playing black people.

With regard to white Oscar winners, mentions of their race are almost unheard of. In “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks is admonished by a Black Panther sympathizer to get his “white ass” away from a window. “The Blind Side” includes the line “White people are crazy,” and “Django Unchained” includes gleeful references to killing white folk. There are also films like “Ben Hur,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Godfather,” in which the character’s ethnicity, not race, is alluded to in some fashion. However, apart from these isolated examples, white Oscar winners almost never star in roles in which their race is a theme or issue or is even mentioned.

Race always an element

Since Hattie McDaniel’s 1939 Best Supporting Actress win for playing Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” films starring black Oscar winners have always contained racial content or themes. This year’s nominated films all contain variants of the n-word. So do most other films in which a black actor has won an academy award. Race is always an element.

In addition to the cavalcade of films with a primary theme of racism, slavery or bigotry, those films that are not overtly about these subjects always manage to find a way to work the character’s race into the story when the actor playing them is black. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s role in “Jerry Maguire” included multiple, often irrelevant references to his race, including the beautiful moment when his character’s wife tells him, “You’re a fine, proud, surviving, splendid black man,” leaving many to wonder if black spouses actually feel the need to constantly remind each other of their race or if this was a white writer’s creative fantasy.

Similarly, in “Million Dollar Baby,” Morgan Freeman is randomly and irrelevantly called a nigger, as a joke. Like any respectable black man would be expected to, his character finds the joke hilarious.

In “Ghost,” for which Whoopi Goldberg received a Best Supporting Actress award and which should have had absolutely nothing to do with race, somebody in the film inevitably mentions that she’s black. In fact the script for “Ghost” specifically called for a black woman to play the character of the psychic. (Notably absent: a race specification for the main characters, who are assumed to be white).