William & Mary

Knight: Academy, Oscars not necessarily what people think

  • Looking past the Academy Awards
    Looking past the Academy Awards  Arthur Knight, American studies and English associate professor at W&M, suggests people attend movies more reflective of life as it is, or how they'd like to see it, rather than blindly supporting Oscar winners.  Photo by Jim Ducibella
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When it comes to the greatness of Academy Award-winning films and Hollywood’s ability to transform American prejudices, Arthur Knight has a message for you.

Don’t be fooled. Those days, if they ever existed, are over.

“When you look at the history of the Academy Awards, look at the history of Best Pictures, I don’t think they bat .500 when it comes to films that we think of as great, films we watch and re-watch and think of as being important or somehow transformational, either in film or in society at large,” said Knight.

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Knight is an American studies and English associate professor at William & Mary. His work includes the book Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film, and he is presently researching the history of African American fame and celebrity.

To Knight, the Academy Awards show airing Sunday night is another exercise in public relations by an industrial association – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They are meant to draw attention to the industry. People mistakenly hope award winners represent changes in American culture and society at large, Knight said.

That doesn’t mean that Knight discounts the current controversy hovering over the upcoming show, or the many before it, regarding the lack of black actors, actresses and movies nominated for Academy Awards.

From 1985 (“The Color Purple”) until 2009, no films with predominantly black themes or issues were nominated for best picture. Of the six that have been nominated, only 12 Years A Slave in 2013 took home the Oscar.

Of the 18 black actors nominated for best actor, only four – Sidney Poitier in 1963, Denzel Washington in 2001, Jamie Foxx in 2004 and Forest Whitaker in 2006 – have won.

Of the 10 actresses nominated for best actress, only one – Halle Berry in 2001 – won.

None have been nominated in any category this year.

“Keep in mind that Academy Awards – all awards actually – are symbolic,” he said. “That being said, symbolism is important. So it’s an important controversy, far from meaningless. But it’s not a controversy that’s easily resolved just by the nature of awards shows in general.”

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Part of the reason films aren’t as culturally influential as people want them to be is the process of filmmaking itself.

“Movies are expensive. They take a long time to make, and it’s hard to get people to come to theaters, to gather in a central location to see them, so they don’t tend that often to be out in the forefront, socio-culturally,” he said. “They tend to land fairly squarely in the middle."

In Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film, Knight focuses on a system in which black people were originally introduced into movies as part of musical or comedy numbers – even if the rest of the film was white and non-musical, like “Citizen Kane.” Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and other entertainment stars emerged from the ranks of musical performers.

It wasn’t until Poitier came along in the late 1950s and began a long career as actor and director that change finally took hold, Knight said.Arthur Knight's book

“He wasn’t first; there are black actors who don’t have robust star careers who were stage actors and serious performers,” Knight said. “But Sidney Poitier was really the first to disavow music and musical talent as part of his performing persona. He’s a terrible singer, not a very good dancer. He even pretty much disavowed comedy until the 1970’s.”

Knight has advice for movie buffs angry over the lack of black nominees at this year’s Oscars: Don’t watch the program; don’t support movies you think shouldn’t have won.

“Go to movies that you think make a difference,” he said. “That’s what matters. Put your money where your beliefs are. If there’s something out there that you think represents the world the way you see it – or would like to see it – support it.”