An Open Letter to Will Smith and African-American Actors

And the Oscar goes to… Get the Picture?

#OscarsSoWhite ­ Instead of Boycotting, Follow this Simple Guide to these Popular Toxic Oscar Stereotypes. Counting down every Oscar­winning
African­American Actor and the Roles that Won.

by Larry Skilmore (@larryskilmore)

It’s Black history month 2016, and we have yet another controversy surrounding the disappointing absence of diversity in the major acting nominations for this year’s Oscars. This time Jada Pinkett Smith’s call for a boycott has kicked off the #OscarsSoWhite trend and today’s social media has allowed pretty much anybody to share their thoughts and feelings on the matter. I’ve read and heard all sorts of opinions, theories and incriminations across dozens of websites, channels and outlets about “who,” “why,” “what” and “how?” Mostly, I’ve observed a lot of sound and fury on all sides without much clarity. In my generosity, I, Larry Skilmore, have decided to settle the issue once and for all.

I will separate the core underlying issues to focus on the main issue of the day #OscarsSoWhite asks. The question of why are there no African­American actors nominated in the glamour categories, and how can we get more African­ American actors “included” in the critical and commercial gravy train called the Oscars? Jada didn’t mention how much a nomination and win is worth in cash in her boycott announcement, but I will tell you it’s worth a lot…just ask Jamie or Jennifer. What I will say to Will, Jada, Eddie, Idris, Gabrielle, Kerry and all African­American actors is this: Getting an Oscar nomination and winning isn’t that difficult. All you have to do is give the people (in this case the Academy voters), what they want. The following guide is all you need to get your Oscar, and contains every African­American acting Oscar­winner and the roles that won them the prize. Read this bit of black history carefully before you call your agents.

Mammies & Sambos

The “Mammy” is the most well­known and enduring racial caricature of African­American women. From the beginning of slavery to today, the mammy image has served the political, social and economic interests of mainstream white America. The mammy caricature implied that black women were only fit to be domestic workers; thus, the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination. Mammy’s male counterpart; the sambo, is typically a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle and inarticulate buffoon. Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child not capable of living as an independent adult. Sambo was a loyal and contented servant, eagerly and courageously, defending his master’s property and way of life. In film and media, these caricatures provide comic relief and support of the white lead characters endeavors or goals.

Sambos and mammies generally are devoid of sexuality and mostly illiterate; they compensate by having deeper spiritual or magical powers like Oscar winning medium “Oda Mae” played by Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990) and Oscar nominated, Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey in Green Mile (1999). More recently in 2011, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer’s “Minny” while not magical is the moral compass in The Help. Taraji P. Henson also appeared on the Oscar radar with her standout mammy portrayal of “Queenie” in Benjamin Button getting a Best Supporting nomination in 2008. The sambo character has evolved from the overtly offensive 1930s comic Stepin Fetchit, into the loyal sage who sees the best in the white lead character even when he doesn’t see it in himself. These types of characters have been a favorite with the Academy for decades with Louis Gosset Jr. winning the first Best Supporting Actor award for an African­American in 1980’s critical and box office champ An Officer and a Gentleman. The modern day “King of the Sambo” Morgan Freeman has multiple nominations, Driving Miss Daisy 1989 and Shawshank Redemption (1994), and one Academy Award victory for Million Dollar Baby (2004) playing these docile and loyal characters.

In America, mammy and sambo have been offered as a defense for slavery and segregation. How bad could these institutions have been, if blacks were contented, even happy, being servants? In Hollywood, the mammy and the sambo have been elevated to a high art with the Academy rewarding these faithful servants with its ultimate prize for both raking in millions upon millions and maintaining the racial status quo with a smile and a sassy retort. Thanks Mammy!

The original big screen mammy, Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar of any kind ever awarded to an African­American in 1939 for Best Supporting Actress for her unforgettable role of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel appeared in dozens of films from the 1930s to 50s. She was often criticized by blacks for perpetuating the mammy caricature. She responded this way: “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one” (Bogle, 1994, p. 82).

Sidney Poitier found Oscar gold as the noble sambo, “Homer Smith” in the service of German Nuns in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. He builds them a church in exchange for his own mental enslavement. Already an acclaimed Broadway actor; Poitier was first nominated in 1959 for playing black monster prison escapee, “Noah Cullen” in The Defiant Ones.

Tough sambo, “Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley” (Louis Gosset Jr.) mentors and guides white angel, “Mayo” played by Richard Gere through boot camp like a surrogate dad in 1980’s Officer and a Gentleman. It was the first time an African­American actor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Whoopi Goldberg eye bugging and neck rolling her way to the Oscar in 1990 as the magical mammy, ”Oda Mae Brown” who spoke to lovelorn ghost, Patrick Swayze in the popular hit, Ghost. The late Michael Clarke Duncan also garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination in his role as giant but child­like magical sambo “John Coffey” in 1999’s The Green Mile. Whoopi also received a nomination for her role as black victim, “Celie” in 1985’s The Color Purple

Dancing sambo “Rod Tidwell,” played by Cuba Gooding Jr. jived and strutted his way to the Oscar in 1996’s Jerry Maguire. Gooding further enhanced his sambo credentials by biting his Oscar like a chicken leg post ceremony (see photo). While not as popular with the academy, the comic sambo is alive and well in Hollywood providing breakout box office status for Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Shawn Wayans and Kevin Hart whose cowardly antics and childish buffoonery have made him a star worthy of the great, Stepin Fetchit. At least he’s not wearing a dress…yet.

American’s acting treasure, Morgan Freeman has certainly played his share of sambos, most notably in Oscar nominated, Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) before striking Oscar gold in 2004 playing Clint Eastwood’s faithful black dog, “Eddie Scrap­ Iron Dupris” in Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Octavia Spencer went from unknown actress to the Oscar night winners circle as 21st century mammy “Minnie Jackson” in 2011’s The Help by reminding white America of their “good ole days.” How to Get Away with Murder star, Viola Davis also received an Academy nomination for her mammy portrayal of “Aibileen Clark” in the same film.


As old as Hollywood itself, the black monster in cinema was featured in the very first Hollywood blockbuster, D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. By today’s standards, shockingly racist, the film is a call to arms for God and country­loving Americans to band together, and join the Ku Klux Klan to violently stop the onslaught of marauding packs of newly freed black men roaming the countryside, high on freedom, drunk on moonshine and hungry for the flesh of white women. The black monster confirms all the fears and suspicions of the white American audience and the Academy. It dehumanizes all African­American people because it allows the (white) hero to justify any extreme measures to vanquish the black boogeyman in the form of the monster pimp or monster criminal or killer or prisoner on the loose, even a black pirate.

For Black male actors this seems to be fertile space as reflected by Oscar nominations for Laurence Fishburne’s wife beating monster, Ike Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to do With It, Sidney Poitier’s escaped inmate in The Defiant Ones (1958), James Earl Jones’ woman beating boxer, “Jack Jefferson” in The Great White Hype (1970), Samuel L. Jackson as monster hitman, “Jules” in Pulp Fiction 1994, Morgan Freeman earned his first Academy nomination as monster pimp, “Fast Black” in Street Smart (1987), Terrence Howard was a rapping pimp, “DJay” in Hustle & Flow (2005), even Barkhad Abdi, “Muse”, the Somali Pirate in Captain Phillips (2013) support this assertion.

Filling prisons and cemeteries faster than you can say “black lives matter”; this is the imagery that comes to mind when white police officers, armed with radios and batons and handcuffs and mace and bullet proof vests and guns somehow “fear for their lives” when confronted by a unarmed black male in a hoodie or selling cigarettes or walking away or shackled, but with a hateful look in his eyes…etc., but I digress. If you want the Oscar you have a good shot here.

Monster cop, “Alonzo Harris” and Denzel Washington were a perfect match in 2001’s hit, Training Day. The monster caricature defines black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal ­­ deserving punishment, maybe death. The monster is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti­social menace. Black monsters are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims…in short; King Kong ain’t got nothing on this guy.

Dysfunctional, abusive, unemployed, incestuous monster mom, “Mary” landed Mo’Nique the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009 in Lee Daniels’ utterly savage film, Precious adding girl power to the monsters club. Yes, that is a TV she has over her head.

Genocidal, cannibal monster, “Idi Amin” portrayed by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland won the Oscar for Best Actor (2006). Clifton R. Breckinridge (1900) said of the black race, “when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form.”


The black victim titillates something in the American audience that says black person’s humanity is enhanced by their ability to withstand and endure extreme brutality and misery. Themes of helplessness and dominance seem to stimulate the guilt and pity Oscar votes to get the nomination and win. The black victim is always a welcomed sight to the Academy and a safe choice for an actor in search of Oscar. Male actors like Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor, (12 Years A Slave) Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) and Denzel Washington (Glory, The Hurricane) must endure the whip and false imprisonment or slavery with a side of drug addiction. Oscar­winning black actresses like Halle Berry and Lupita Nyong’o must experience these same plagues with sexual dehumanization and domestic violence tossed in for graphic effect as well. The singing victim, in particular, can almost be its own category snagging African­American actors critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for Diana Ross as junkie ingénue Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues (1972) and Angela Basset as battered diva Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with it (1993) in addition to Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar wins in Ray (2004) and 2009’s Dreamgirls. When you take this path, pain and suffering, agony and anguish, addiction and incarceration pave the way to Oscar glory.

Extreme pain and poverty make “Laticia Musgrove” an easy sexual victim for her husband’s racist executioner in the Lee Daniels produced, Monster’s Ball (2001). Halle Berry walked (or crawled) away with the Best Actress Oscar launching her into a world superstar. Historically, sexual relations between blacks and whites ­­ whether consensual or rapes ­­ were taboo; yet they occurred often. All black women and girls, regardless of their physical appearances, were vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by white men. The Academy seems to approve.

Two time winner, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of heroic victim, “Private Trip” won him a Best Supporting statue in the 1989 film, Glory. In the Best Supporting Actor Oscar­winning scene, “Private Trip” is graphically whipped until tears roll down his proud cheeks (see Photo). Paul Winfield in Sounder (1972) and Howard Rollins Jr. in Ragtime (1981) also received nominations as proud victims. More recently; America learned how to say Chiwetel Ejiofor as title whipped victim, Solomon Northcutt” in Academy darling 12 years a Slave (2013).

Complete unknown, Lupita Nyong’o was whipped and raped as “Patsey” on her way to the 2013 Oscar Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave. Helpless victim “Patsey’s” capacity to endure unspeakable barbarism makes it more artistic in the eyes of the Academy. Also, completely unknown was Academy nominee, Gabourey Sidibe as the helpless victim, “Precious Jones” in Lee Daniels self loathing, 2009 film Precious. Oprah Winfrey also shot to superstardom following her 1985 Academy nom as police brutality victim “Sophia” in director Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed The Color Purple.

Blinded by his illiterate mother and a drug addict most of his life; transcendent victim Ray Charles played by Jamie Foxx in Ray sings his way to stardom and the Best Actor Oscar in 2004. Singing, heartbroken victim, “Effie” won Jennifer Hudson the Oscar in 2009’s Dreamgirls.


So Will, there you have it. The plain truth is every black Oscar­winning role as well as a great majority of academy nominations fall into one of these toxic stereotypes. Yes, you may ask, “what about leaders like Denzel in Malcolm X (1992) or Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus (2009)? Or what about, Don Cheadle as the heroic “Paul Rusesabagina” in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda? They got Academy noms for playing relatively positive characters. Why yes, Will, even you yourself played a “superdad” and a “cultural icon” in two of your Oscar nominated films, Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Ali (2001), and trust me, if any of you had won the award for those positive roles, I would admit the exception gladly, but as that is not the case, I’m inclined to hold to the assertion that the toxic stereotype represents the path of least resistance to that which you desire; a little gold statue to fill an empty space on your wall of fame. This piece is not here to pass judgment on the politics or ethics of playing these characters so don’t think I’m judging you. Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels, in particular, have built Empire(s) (pun intended) by promoting, producing, propagating proliferating and profiteering in the trade of the ugliest and most destructive portrayals of African and African­American people. (Exactly, what is “Madea” anyway??) But, it must be noted that they are only the tip of the proverbial watermelon. They didn’t create systemic racism and cultural apartheid, and they didn’t create the Academy or why they overwhelmingly seem to favor these images of my people…your people. All anyone will know 30 years from now is that you are an Oscar winner, so allow me to suggest. Maybe you could play a cross­dressing, singing (or rapping) ghost who has a drug problem…or a slave who gets whipped but still leads the charge on a civil war battlefield…oh, yeah, that’s Glory (sorry, Denzel)…ok, I got it…You play a dancing, rapping, drug­dealing, pimp, dirty cop who goes blind and helps an orphan white girl make a grilled cheese sandwich….who then gets whipped…and raped. Let’s call it, Lee Daniels Bagger Vance Too: Back on the Bag. Call your agent before Cuba Gooding or Taye Diggs beats you to it. Host, Chris Rock’s acting is bad enough to exclude him from this letter entirely. Stay with the jokes, Chris, ‘cause hosting is as close as you’re going to get to an Oscar. Maybe you should be work­in a musical number or two this year. I’m just saying…I’m here to help. Get at me. Enjoy the Oscars everybody and celebrate Black History Month!