May 13, 2020

Book Review--Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans

Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans
Frederick W. Gooding, Jr.
Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

The story of black victory at the Oscars is complicated: a saga of small steps forward, but often uneasy circumstances surrounding those gains. Winning isn’t just a matter of earning recognition, but also a reflection of what kinds of stories, roles, and stars get rewarded. In a new book, Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans, Frederick Gooding, Jr. approaches the subject with clarity and compassion, acknowledging progress, while analyzing the quality of those advancements.

Gooding creates a solid framework upon which to lay his examination of the history of Black performers at the Oscars. He has chosen to focus on the acting category because it receives the most attention and thus tends to have the strongest cultural impact. For each nomination, he considers the nationality, primary profession, frequency of individual nomination among performers, and the subject matter and tone of the films and performances for which they are nominated.

The theory Gooding presents is that there is an essential template for the black Oscar nominee which favors foreign-born actors over African Americans, a small pool of nominees who are nominated multiple times, performers who are already established in other fields such as music and sports, and stories that focus on biography and racial struggles. He concludes that Hollywood denies audiences and performers varied stories and roles or hiring fresh black talent because studios find it too risky. As a result, the same names appear year after year on nomination lists, and from films and for roles with limited range, denying cinematic expression of the full black experience.

Gooding approaches his subject with kindness, refusing to judge ambitious performers for accepting roles as mammies and slaves or branching out from other fields into acting, while acknowledging that the prevalence of these characterizations and the failure of studios to hire trained black actors causes harm. He not only understands the complexity of the matter, but is able to pick apart the various elements and present them in a compelling matter. His thinking is academic, but he writes with fluidity, making the subject accessible.

As he applies his theories to each nominee, moving through them chronologically, Gooding’s text is often repetitive, but the resulting tedium is the point. African American actors and filmmakers have exponentially more to offer than they have been given the opportunity to do. With this incisive and detailed study, it is clear where change needs to happen. It is only a matter of heeding the lessons of the past.

Many thanks to Rownman & Littlefield for providing a copy of the book for review.

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