What a difference a year makes. When the list of 2011 Academy Award nominees was announced last month, there was one glaring difference. Compared to last year’s contenders, which included Morgan Freeman for Invictus, Gabourey Sidibe for Precious and Mo’Nique who brought home the gold man for her portrayal in Precious, there was an obvious lack of people of color. Truth be told, the 2011 awards show represents the Whitest group of nominees in the major acting categories since the 73rd Oscars, 10 years ago.
SIDNEY POITIER AS “HOMER SMITH” IN LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963) Poitier plays Homer Smith, an unemployed construction worker that encounters five nuns who escaped from beyond the Berlin Wall. He’s initially hired to do a few odd jobs before continuing on his road trip but quickly forms a tight bond with the sisters and helps them build a church in the desert. Taking home an Oscar in 1964 for his portrayal, Poitier made history with the first win of a Best Actor Academy Award by any Black actor. According to some reports, Homer Smith was originally written as a White character.
EDDIE MURPHY AS “AXEL FOLEY” IN BEVERLEY HILLS COP (1984) It’s hard to believe that this popular action comedy was initially supposed to be all action, with Sylvester Stallone playing the lead. But when Murphy was cast as Det. Axel Foley the film was rewritten and wound up holding the honor of being one of the highest grossing R-rated films in the US until 20 years later when The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004. To date the film has grossed over $300 million worldwide and spawned two equally successful sequels.
DENZEL WASHINGTON AS “GRAY GRANTHAM” IN THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993) Based on a John Grisham (The Firm, A Time to Kill) novel, The Pelican Brief tells the story of Gray Grantham, an investigative reporter looking for the next big story. After a series of judges get murdered, he befriends a law student that’s tightly wrapped up in the web. Although the novel described Grantham as a White character, Washington skillfully took on the role when it hit the big screen. His portrayal, coupled with Julia Roberts, resulted in over $195 million in worldwide ticket sales.
MORGAN FREEMAN AS “ELLIS ‘RED’ REDDING” IN THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) Falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her love, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) is sentenced to Shawshank State Penitentiary where he’s befriended by Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Freeman), an inmate serving a life sentence. Before Freeman was cast, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, and even Robert Redford were all said to be considered for the part. Although the character was described as a middle-aged Irishman with graying red hair in the novel the film was adapted from, director Frank Darabont is often credited as saying he couldn’t see anyone else but Freeman as Red.
EDDIE MURPHY AS “DR. JOHN DOLITTLE” IN DR. DOLITTLE (1998) The central character in a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting (1920–1952), Doctor John Dolittle shuns human patients in favor of animals that he can communicate with in their own languages. Actor Rex Harrison played the lead role in the 1967 film adaptation, but Murphy helped revive the character with his 1998 remake, which grossed over $250 million worldwide and spawned several sequels.
WILL SMITH AS “JAMES WEST” IN WILD WILD WEST (1999) Adapted from a classic television show that ran on CBS for four seasons (1965 to 1969), Wild Wild West was initially rumored to be made into a theatrical release as early as 1992 with Mel Gibson playing Secret Service Agent James West. Later Tom Cruise was reportedly attached to the project as its lead, but after substantial changes to the characters, West was re-imagined as a Black man, exploring issues of race in the 1800s. Although the studio barely broke even on its $170 million budget, having Smith as a headliner helped the film gross over $222 million worldwide.
WILL SMITH AS “BAGGER VANCE” IN THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE (2000) Author Steven Pressfield acknowledges that his book The Legend of Bagger Vance and its title character is based on the Hindu God, Bhagavan. Set in Savannah, Georgia during the World War I era, the film Smith portrays Bagger as a mythical caddy that helps a disillusioned golfer (played by Matt Damon) find his “authentic swing.” Despite mixed reviews of the “magical negroe” plot, the project still managed to drum up $40 million in worldwide tickets sales.
MICHAEL CLARK DUNCAN AS “WILSON ‘THE KINGPIN’ FISK” IN DAREDEVIL (2003) Based on a comic character created by Stan Lee and John Romita, The Kingpin is a one of the most feared and figures in the Marvel Universe. Traditionally depicted on page as an imposing bald White man, the casting of Duncan in the role for Daredevil painted a new picture of the super villain and the film muscled its way to over $179 million in worldwide gross sales.
DENZEL WASHINGTON AS “BEN MARCO” IN THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004) The original motion picture was released in 1962 as an American Cold War political thriller starring crooner Frank Sinatra and a young Angela Lansbury. The film generated over $2.5 million domestically, which was pretty good back for the time. However, once Washington took over the lead part in 2004 and made it his own, the original’s numbers paled in comparison to the update’s $69 million domestic haul.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON AS “THE OCTOPUS” IN THE SPIRIT (2008) Created by writer-artist Will Eisner in 1940, The Spirit is a comic book superhero whose arch nemesis, The Octopus, first appeared on the pages in ’46. In the original comics, readers could always identify The Octopus by his distinctive gloves because of his mastery in disguises. In Lionsgate’s 2008 release The Spirit, Jackson took on the role of the traditionally White bag guy, generating $39 million in domestic and foreign markets.