Last year felt like a breakthrough. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film about an African-American who attended to several US presidents, not only drew rave reviews and Oscars buzz but topped the US box office for three weekends in a row – dispelling the idea that white audiences won’t flock to a film about the black experience. Fruitvale Station, a passionate depiction of the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer, emerged as a surprise indie hit and an awards season favourite. And critics hailed 12 Years a Slave as a landmark in the depiction of American slavery – not to mention an early frontrunner for the Academy’s best picture.
But when the nominations were announced on 16 January only one of these received a nod. “In theatres, 2013 may have been, in some ways, ‘the year of the black movie’,’ but in the Academy, it turned out to be the year of a black movie,” writes journalist and author Mark Harris. Twelve Years a Slave garnered nine nominations, but there was nothing for The Butler or Fruitvale Station. Another film once thought to be in the running, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, received only one – for a song written by U2. “This does not mean that the Academy is racist,” Harris added, noting that six black artists did receive nominations. “But it’s certainly a reminder, as if any were needed, that the Academy is white.”
Hollywood’s racial history is to some degree marked by moments at the Academy Awards: when Hattie McDaniel became the first black Oscar winner ever, for 1939’s Gone With the Wind, when Sidney Poitier became the first black best actor winner for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, or Halle Berry the first black best actress winner for 2001’s Monster’s Ball. These milestones have generally been the exceptions, not the rule. (The table where Hattie McDaniel sat at the ceremony was still segregated from the white attendees.)
Taking the Oscars by numbers, in its 85-year history, 291 performers have been awarded. Only 14 were black – four for best actor, one for best actress, four for best supporting actor and five for best supporting actress. For film artists and technicians who work behind the camera, it’s even fewer. There has never been a black winner for cinematography or editing, and only one for screenwriting (for 2009’s Precious). No black producer has taken home a best picture prize. And there has never been a black best director winner. Steve McQueen is only the third black director to receive a nomination for 12 Years a Slave.
Compare and contrast
And for all the critical praise 12 Years a Slave has received, it is hardly a shoe-in to win best picture. Hollywood trade publications have reported that some members of the Academy have grumbled about the film’s brutality, or have been put off by reviews highlighting its violence. “I think reviews have overhyped the violence,” says Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly’s Oscars analyst. “But there is much more to the story than that. By heralding the violence as punishing for the audience and relentless, many reviews have ignored the depth of affection between the characters, and their willingness to sacrifice for each other.” Could its brutality prevent some Academy members from voting for it? “Twelve Years a Slave will be a healthy test of the Academy. Some voters have been intimidated by it, but by now most of them have given the film a shot and many have been deeply moved,” he says.
Cultural critic Frank Rich, writing in New York magazine, likens 12 Years a Slave’s point of view to that of the abolitionist character Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” Rich writes. “However elegantly rendered, that is the message of 12 Years a Slave to a white audience. It’s the message we knew going in. What should also matter to a contemporary audience seeing a movie about the evils of slavery are the intractable vestiges of slavery’s legacy that persist even now.”
Arguably, the movie that accomplishes that is Fruitvale Station. It is story of the last day in the real life of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by a white police officer at a California train station in 2009. Breznican says that, comparing 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, “[12 Years a Slave] has resonated more [with the Academy], for sure, but there are probably many reasons for that. Among them – yes, maybe voters do prefer the distance of history to confronting what lies right in front of us. It certainly is possible. But I would argue that 12 Years a Slave is simply more epic in scale, and perhaps just a superior film overall.”
Though it has been criticised over the years for ignoring films about contemporary racial injustice – most notably by choosing to honour Driving Miss Daisy with Best Picture in 1989 while not nominating Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for the top prize – that might speak to the Oscar voting body’s long-standing preference for safe entertainment over provocation. “I'm no apologist for the Oscars: they miss landmark films and performances all the time. But I wouldn't paint them as cowardly about race,” Breznican says. “Crash [which won best picture in 2005] was entirely about race relations and wasn't the softball, feel-good movie some like to remember it. And yet, yes, they also honour movies [with racial themes] like The Help and The Blind Side, which do have a much softer focus.”
Though the number of black artists who have received Oscars has been scant, there are signs that the Academy is starting to be more inclusive: of those 14 black performers to win a statuette, eight have collected their prize in the past 13 years. That may not be much consolation to the makers of Fruitvale Station and The Butler, but progress can begin with small steps.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.