It Took Denzel Washington Decades To Win A SAG; That’s A Big Problem

The 2017 SAG Awards were a triumph for Black actors, and the 2017 Oscars look to be shaping up the same way. But behind the triumphs of “diversity” is a troubling race issue Hollywood continues to struggle with.

It seems like every year, Black folk are making entertainment history again. Standout films Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight each showed that the Black experience is varied and complicated, and the immaculate Black expression on-screen led to more history being made with Oscar nominations, SAG nominations, and SAG wins. Orange is the New Black won Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series for the third year in a row from its season that focused primarily on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In film, Black actors took home 3 of the top 4 solo SAG awards for the night, with Denzel Washington winning the first SAG award of his over 3-decade long career.

But history making nominations and wins do not mean that we have achieved the lasting change we’ve been looking for.

Hollywood has a real sinister way of patting itself on the back for the least bit of progress without addressing the structural issues that continue to be a hindrance for minorities in entertainment. When I look at the stable of Black actors who are front-and-center during this awards’ season, the one thing that stands out (other than their uncanny ability to slay any script) is their age. Viola Davis is 51 years old. Denzel Washington is 62. Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are both 46. Even Moonlight standout Mahershala Ali is 42. Their main competition? Ryan Gosling (36) and Emma Stone (28).

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson have been in the acting game for decades, paying dues and playing whatever roles were made available to them. Emma Stone was Easy A in 2010. In fact, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone all had their breakout success starring in The Help together in 2011, when they were 45, 36, and 22 respectively.

The point here is that the Black actors were only really given these opportunities to shine after years of toiling in the industry while their white counterparts have simply faced lower barriers to entry from the starts of their careers.

The racist and small-minded would chalk this up to chance or Black people just not trying hard enough, or even, just not having the talent. But we know that is false. As Blacks have taken advantage of a proliferation of new media streams and outlets, we see time and again that we’ve got a deep bench of young talent. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (30) is captivating on WGN America’s Underground, and she’s been slaying since Eve’s Bayou (1997). Michael B. Jordan is only 29, and he’s already had a plethora of major roles. Then there’s Zoe Kravitz (28), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (33), Kofi Siriboe (22) from Queen Sugar, and Nicole Beharie (32).

And I could keep going.

The issue is not talent, effort, or luck. The issue is that the industry privileges and preferences young white talent.

Furthermore, the award show history that we are witnessing largely required Blacks making space for themselves, making films by us and starring us, in order for most of these films to even be created. Pharrell was a producer for Hidden Figures. Denzel Washington was a producer and the driving force behind getting Fences into theaters. And Barry Jenkins wrote and directed Moonlight.

If Black entertainers had not made these opportunities for themselves, they simply wouldn’t have existed.

Just imagine if all of the actors I listed above had multiple opportunities to be a part of boutique, high-profile projects early in their careers. Imagine if Hollywood was tripping over itself to write roles for them as they do for actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. If those things were reality, pundits wouldn’t feel the need to point out every time “diversity” won because diversity would be a way of doing business.

If we really want to see change, we need to see a continued erosion of the barriers that prohibit a racially diverse people from fully participating in the industry. We have undeniable proof that the talent has always been here and that all we needed was an opportunity. Blacks created those opportunities in 2016 by making moves in front of and behind the camera, and the praise is well deserved. But I’m sick of Hollywood thinking they deserve cookies for giving us crumbs, and putting the impetus on Black people to create all of the spaces for Black faces to appear on film is a simple recipe for limiting our success.

We’ve been conditioned to believe marginal gains are real progress as if a single battle wins a war. But wars are won through sequences of victories, big and small, decisive and hard fought, until the other side has no other choice but to surrender.

Unfortunately, Hollywood and the voting bodies behind all of its awards are still very white, and Hollywood simply hasn’t surrendered yet.


Photo credit: Fences Twitter

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.