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Oscar's Snub of Ava DuVernay: A Pattern of Overlooking Black Women Filmmakers

02/18/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Oscar has snubbed Ava DuVernay director of Selma, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2014. Richard Roeper's review for the Chicago Sun-Times, David Denby's review for The New Yorker, and A.O. Scott's New York Times analysis of the film all attest to DuVernay's prowess as a filmmaker. In his discussion of Selma for Variety, Scott Foundas describes her work as "politically astute" and "beautifully staged."

DuVernay could have been the first black woman nominated for Best Director. Instead, this omission reflects the racism and sexism that still permeates the film industry and, in turn, shapes the Oscar selection process. A 2012 report by the Los Angeles Times entitled "Unmasking the Academy" revealed that the 5,765 voting members of the Academy are "overwhelmingly white and male," with an estimated 94 percent in Caucasian membership overall.

Oscar's snub of DuVernay is part of a historical continuum where black directors and women of critically acclaimed films have been routinely denied Best Director nominations. At present, no black has ever won an Oscar for Best Director. John Singleton for Boyz N in the Hood (1991), Lee Daniels for Precious (2009), and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave (2013), are the only three blacks who have been nominated. In fact, black directors make up about 4 percent of the Directors Guild of America, and of the top 600 movies in 2013, only 33 of these films had black directors - only two of whom were black women.

Only four women have been nominated for Best Director: including Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). Bigelow is the lone woman to claim the Academy Award for Best Director. DuVernay has been snared in what social scientists refer to as the "double bind" of racism and sexism despite the fact that black women have been in the film industry for 100 years.

Madame C. J. Walker, one of the first black women millionaires in U.S. history, produced films about her haircare products during the early 20th century reflective of black women's milestones in film. With "Spirit of the South: The Maddened Mob" (1915), Drusilla Dunjee Houston likely wrote the first screenplay by a black person in response to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Madame E. Toussaint Welcome made films about black World War I veterans in the 1920s. In the late 1920s, and 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston, Columbia University educated anthropologist, made ethnographic films to document black cultural traditions, as did her peer Eslanda Goode Robeson. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win any Academy Award. Stereotypical roles of mammy or maids continued to be almost the only choices available to black actresses through much of the 20th century. In 1942, Lena Horne became the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Dorothy Dandridge was honored with a Best Actress nomination for her role in Carmen Jones in 1954.

More black women directors emerged in the Post-Civil Rights Era, including Maya Angelou, Debbie Allen, Julie Dash, Darnell Martin, Dee Rees, and DuVernay among others. Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) is considered to be the first film directed by a black woman with general theatrical release, while Martin's I Like It Like That (1994) is the first film directed by a black woman produced by a major studio. The main obstacle facing black women filmmakers today is funding; the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by men who are less willing to finance films directed by black women.

Daniels and Tyler Perry, black men directors, continue to maintain a monopoly over films centered on black women's experiences. Many of these films, critics have argued, continue to represent black women in stereotypical ways. Perry's Madea Goes to Jail (2009) grossed an estimated $90 million while Sanaa Hamri's Something New (2007), a film produced, directed, written, and starring a black woman, with a storyline centered on the life of a black professional woman, brought in approximately $11 million. The issue of finance faced by black women in the film industry can be juxtaposed with the problem of misrepresentation.

The film industry has often reflected an American "double standard" in terms of the lack of gender equity behind the scenes. New York Film Academy statistics indicate that women made up about 9 percent of all film directors, 15 percent of writers, 17 percent of executive producers, and 20 percent of editors for 2012's top films. Another study, from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University indicates that the number of women directors has actually declined since 2012 to 7 percent in 2014.

Although every academy voting member can vote for the best picture Oscar, peers vote for Best Director. Thus, only a miniscule percentage of women have the power to vote in this category. Selma is an acclaimed film not without controversy, but this should not have disqualified DuVernay for the Best Director nomination given that the film has been recognized as a Best Picture nominee coupled with excellent reviews.