• Hattie McDaniel (Mammy, right) and Vivien Leigh (Scarlett) in Gone with the Wind. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM))Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
#oscarssowhite might be a recent hashtag, but its underlying sentiment is nothing new.
Jeremy Cassar

26 Feb 2016 - 4:50 PM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2016 - 10:08 PM

We’re only a couple months into 2016 but one issue in world of TV and film has eclipsed all else: diverse representation at awards shows.

Since Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee announced a planned boycott of this year's Academy Awards due to the failure to recognise strong black performances, the hashtag #oscarssowhite has colonised the online media sphere.

But this certainly isn't the first time multicultural representation has been an issue for the Oscars. At several points over the past 88 years, questions of racial bias have ended up on the Academy’s radar, to varying degrees of controversy. 

Here are nine such moments:


1. The first African American is nominated, and wins - for playing a slave (1939)

Gone with the Wind was a game-changer in several respects. The scale. The buzz. The costumes. The first African American Oscar nomination and win.

The role of Scarlett’s servant Mammy was so coveted that Eleanor Roosevelt pushed to have her personal maid play the part. Hattie McDaniel ended up with the role, and while her award was a step forward for black performers, the subservient role was seen as a step backwards for equal rights.

2. The first lead performance nod is given to an African American (1954)

Six years after his first nomination for The Defiant Ones, champion of diversity Sidney Poitier was the first black man to take home the best actor award.

Thirteen years later, Poitier exponentially rectified insulting depictions of African Americans on-screen through three racially themed classics: To Sir, with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night.

He also directed two Bill Cosby films, but we can’t hold that against Sidney Poitier, KBE. 

3. An Indigenous American declines The Godfather Best Actor award (1973)

One of the rare times when he was the good kind of difficult, Marlon Brando shocked millions by boycotting the ceremony and sending an Apache woman named Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his best actor statuette.

Stunts, whether genuine or staged, are relatively common at the modern Oscars, but at the time, Brando’s decision sent a strong message to Hollywood, one that drew attention to reductive portrayals of Native Americans on the big screen. 

4. A Cambodian “non-actor” takes home best supporting actor (1985)

Cambodian physician Haing S Ngor’s award-winning portrayal of journalist Dith Pran was a relatively anomalous moment in Oscar history.

Not only did Ngor have no experience as an actor, but had survived a suppressed life under the thumb of the Khmer Rouge.

(Interestingly, Japanese American Noriyuki "Pat" Morita was also nominated in the best supporting actor category for The Karate Kid.)

While Ngor was the first male of Asian descent to win an acting Oscar, Sayonara’s Miyosji Umeki won best supporting actress almost 30 years prior - the first Asian woman to do so.

5. Eddie Murphy breaks script before presenting best picture (1988)

It’s easy to forget that Eddie Murphy was once one of Hollywood’s most outspoken members. '80s Eddie hit hot-button topics with both fists, and was able to get away with it thanks to a cheeky and infectious personality. 

Here, when asked to present the night’s top honour, Murphy put the prompter on pause and spot-lit late-'80s diversity issues.  

6.  A Mandarin Chinese film is nominated for best picture (2000)

While a French language film was nominated for best picture in 1937 (La Grande Illusion) it wasn’t until the next millennium that a foreign language film appeared on the ballot.

The Academy’s recognition of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon helped convert a fair chunk of the subtitle-fearing public, mesmerising audiences and critics with groundbreaking visuals while still managing to tell a story that engaged the full spectrum of emotion.   

7. 2002 is hailed as a "triumph for black actors". And everyone lived happily ever after...

When Monster’s Ball's Halle Berry and Training Day's Denzel Washington devoured the 2002 awards circuit, African American Hollywood-ites announced the beginning of a new era in big screen equality.

If you were to explain hashtagging to those same people, they would no doubt scoff at any future need for #oscarssowhite.

8. Spike Lee, Clint Eastwood and black soldiers in cinema (2008)

When Clint Eastwood’s non-identical twin WWII epics Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers hit the festival circuit, Lee grew spiky…

"Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total and there was not one Negro actor on the screen."

… then quickly discovered what happens when one gets dirty with Dirty Harry.

“A guy like him should shut his face,” retorted the former King of One-Liners.

The groundbreaking African American director responded by reminding the screen legend that he is not Lee’s father, and they are not on a “plantation”.

In the end, a mediation was facilitated by Mr Happy Ending himself: Steven Spielberg. 

9. Academy Award nominations lead to the creation of #oscarssowhite (2016)

SEE: the internet, in its entirety.  


Make sure you head over to SBS Movies, where we'll be providing live, insightful and delightful coverage of the Oscars, which airs live on Channel 9 on Monday, 29 February at 12pm (AEDT).

For a collection of films acknowledged by Oscar (either with a nomination or a win), go to SBS On Demand.