On February 29, 1940, the 12th Academy Awards were held in Los Angeles at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, which had a strict no-blacks policy.
Hattie McDaniel, the Kansas native who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, was up for best supporting actress; producer David O Selznick had to pull strings so she could attend.
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McDaniel sat not at the table with her fellow actors and director, but instead in a segregated area, a makeshift section at the back of the room against a wall.
As she presented the award to McDaniel, actress Fay Bainter said: “To me it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this roof, moves back the walls, and it enables us to embrace the whole of America.
“An America that we love. An America that is almost alone in the world today as it recognises and pays tribute to those who’ve given their best regardless of creed, race or colour.”
McDaniel, in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair, gave a tearful and hurried acceptance speech.
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” said the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
In her will, McDaniel said she wished to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery. As in life, her death in 1952 from breast cancer was marked by segregation; the cemetery refused to bury black bodies.
It took 24 years until another African American would win an Oscar.
Then, after Sidney Poitier won best actor for Lilies of the Field in 1964, there was a 19-year pale gap until Louis Gossett Jr took home a gold statuette for his supporting role as Gunnery Sgt Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman.
In her 2010 acceptance speech for best supporting actress in Precious, Mo’Nique – wrapped in a turqoise dress like McDaniel had worn and with white flowers in her hair – paid homage, thanking her “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to”.
Lack of representation
Despite recognising a handful of non-white artists, the Academy has failed to represent the diversity of American cinema.
Just 14 black actors have won the film industry’s pinnacle prize.
The only African-American director to have taken home an Oscar for a feature-length film is TJ Martin, who won in 2012 with Undefeated, a documentary exploring the struggles of a high-school football team.
In 2015 and 2016, no black actors or filmmakers were nominated.
Anger boiled under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and several prominent figures boycotted the event last year. Host and comedian Chris Rock opened the ceremony by welcoming the audience to the “White People’s Choice Awards”.
In response to growing criticism, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pledged to double its membership of women and minorities by 2020.
This year is different. Six black actors and five directors are nominated in the 89th Academy Awards.
However, after being sidelined by an almost all-white cast for years, there is skepticism about whether the moment marks real change.
After recently winning a Bafta, Viola Davis, who is nominated for her role in Fences, told reporters: “I believe what still is a deficiency is that we have one year a plethora of African-American movies and then the next year nothing.”
Predictions are already floating around for next year’s awards, Davis said, “and very few African-American names are in there”.
Also up for best lead and supporting actor awards are: Denzel Washington; Ruth Negga; Mahershala Ali; Octavia Spencer and Naomie Harris.
‘Better than zero’
“Six black actors is a much better number than the zero,” Justin Gomer, assistant professor of American Studies at California State University and a scholar of race and film, told Al Jazeera.
“But one year with a respectable number of black artists nominated in the acting categories does little to even the score, so to speak.”
Representation “is only one part of Hollywood’s racial issue”, he said.
“Real change, in my view, is both about more opportunities for black artists in front of and behind the screen, and about the substance of those representations.
“Hollywood’s narratives of black life too often rely on white heroism, especially when dealing with black freedom struggles, such as civil rights and slavery. Those films, therefore, become films about a transcendent heroic colour-blind whiteness, rather than black lives.”
For instance, best picture nominee Hidden Figures, the crowd-pleasing story of African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn, “relies too much on the struggle over competing notions of white masculinity through the [Al Harrison] character”, said Gomer.
Harrison, a fictional bigwig at NASA played by Kevin Costner, is oblivious to the issue of racism and learns about the struggles of being black in 1960s America through his employees. The film is nominated for two awards.
On the other hand, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which is also nominated for best picture, “is an absolute masterpiece”, Gomer said.
“It offers everything a Hollywood film, about black lives or not, could and should be … A best picture win for Moonlight just might mean real and much-needed change.”
In a similar vein, Mahershala Ali, who is nominated as best supporting actor for his role in the coming-of-age drama, told The Hollywood Reporter he hoped he was nominated for his talent rather than because of his race.
“I hope I wasn’t nominated because I was black. That has no relevance,” he said. “I hope I was nominated for my work.”
In Oscars history, just four black men have won best supporting actor.
‘Work to be done’
“One year cannot make up for nearly 90 years of a lack of representation,” said April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite tag in January 2015. “Saying that would be a disservice to all of those who have come before us.”
She said this year’s crop of nominees is not more diverse than previous years, rather it is “more black”.
“It’s not fair to all of the other marginalised groups to have blackness represent everyone,” Reign told Al Jazeera.
“There are more films and performances nominated that reflect the black experience … but you know we’ve taken a step backward, or are in the same place last year, with respect to other marginalised communities.
“Where are the Latino and Latina nominees, where are the Asian-American and Pacific Islander nominees? There’s still a lot more work to be done, and one year with a few nominations doesn’t change anything really.”
Four of the five nominated black directors are vying for best documentary feature.
Since the 1940s, when documentaries were first awarded, eight black directors have been nominated for the prize.
Of this year’s films, three are directly related to the black experience.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which was released on Netflix, is a condensed history of 150 years of racism from slavery to mass incarceration and police brutality, formed as a tapestry of interviews and archive television footage.
In one sequence, Senator Cory Brooker says: “We now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.”
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro envisions the book James Baldwin never finished – Remember This House – and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America is a six-part saga examining race and celebrity.
Black Lives Matter effect
“I think the increased public interest in these documentaries owes a lot to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has done an extremely effective job raising awareness about the manner in which black lives are devalued by our criminal justice system,” said Gomer.
“James Baldwin was just as brilliant and prescient 60 years ago as he is now. And filmmaker Raoul Peck has been making incredible films like Lumumba and Sometimes in April for decades.
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“What has changed … is that movie-going audiences are far more aware of and, therefore, interested in these issues than they were five or 10 years ago, when these issues were still just as critical but did not register nationally as they hopefully do now.”
While gifted black filmmakers have not been in short supply, structural racism within the industry has had a limiting effect, critics say.
“There have always been talented filmmakers who have been telling their stories, or want to tell their stories, and just have not received the recognition, either in distrubition … or with respect to nominations,” said Reign.
“There are more opportunities for people to work outside of the system,” she added, citing non-traditional distribution platforms such as Netflix.
“Even in 2017, films that reflect diverse experiences need to go outside the traditional Hollywood system to be seen, and that clearly should not be the case because they have been nominated. They are quality films.”
The big reveal
The Academy’s choices will be unveiled on February 26 at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard – and they will be more closely watched than in previous years.
Quiet praise for the uptick in diversity was quickly washed away by US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Taraneh Alidoosti, the Iranian leading actress in best foreign language film nominee The Salesman, and director Asghar Farhadi, said they would boycott the event – whether or not the ban affects them – in protest at the discriminatory measure.
Since the election of Trump, an extremely unpopular president in the creative industries, artists have used their microphones in awards season to send messages to the White House.
“The key for Hollywood – if in fact it wants to take up a more aggressive role advancing social justice causes in the age of Trump – is to follow up these anti-Trump speeches with substantive action, both on and off screen, that reflect the ideas they are advancing on the awards-show stages,” said Gomer.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla