This year, frustration about the lack of people of color nominated for Academy Awards has been heard more clearly than ever. But that sentiment is hardly new.
When Chris Rock first hosted the Oscars back in 2005, he certainly commented on the racial divide in show business. In 1996, Jesse Jackson attempted to mount protests against Oscars, citing the trophy show’s overwhelming Caucasian-ness as evidence of Hollywood’s institutional racism.
And eight years before that, when Eddie Murphy presented the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1988 ceremony, he took the opportunity to get real about the need for greater diversity in the industry while explaining why he was initially reluctant to make an appearance on the show. (Watch the video above.)
“My first reaction was to say, ‘No, I ain’t going.’ And my manager was like ‘But why?’ … And I said, I’m not going because they haven’t recognized black people in the motion picture industry.”
Murphy continues: “My manager said, ‘You just have to go. You can’t snub the Academy.’ So I came down here to give the award, but I just feel that we have to be recognized as a people. I just want you to know I am going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore and I want you to recognize us.”
This is where the punch line comes in: “He said, ‘Well, fine. It’s done.’ I said, ‘Now when do I have to be there?’ He said, ‘You don’t have to get there until 9 or 10 because it’s the last award of the evening.’”
In another joke that also made his point pretty effectively, Murphy noted that he’d probably never win an Oscar because of his remarks but, given the Academy’s track record, an African-American probably wouldn’t win again until 2004, when all these racial issues would have blown over.
He was right and wrong about all that. The racial issues clearly have not gone away, but African-American actors managed to win some Oscars a little sooner than Murphy predicted. Denzel Washington won his first, for supporting actor for Glory, in 1990, and Whoopi Goldberg won the following year for Ghost. But in terms of lead actors winning, Murphy was actually pretty on-target: 2002 was the year that both Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) won in the lead categories.
As for Murphy — who was set to host the Oscar telecast in 2012 before he dropped out — snagging his own statuette, it hasn’t happened yet. He was nominated and lost in 2007 for his role in Dreamgirls. There’s still time to rectify that, though … and also still time to hope that Rock invites Murphy to join him onstage during this Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Watch a video about this year’s #OscarSoWhite controversy: