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Academy Hits Racism Accusation

March 27, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday disputed charges of a racially motivated Oscar shutout against "The Color Purple."

A local chapter of the NAACP filed a letter of protest Tuesday labeling Monday night's Academy Awards a "slap in the face" and an industry "blackout."

"This practice was used in the past to hinder the success of projects involving blacks," said Willis Edwards, president of the Hollywood-Beverly Hills branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, in a letter to the academy. "It's a shame that such practices continue to exist in 1986 by so-called professionals."

The academy insisted that there was no racial bias in the Oscar voting.

"The Academy finds the NAACP charge a little surprising," the motion picture academy said in a written statement. " 'The Color Purple' is only one of a handful of films in the history of the academy to receive the extraordinary total of 11 award nominations. . . . The long string of nomination honors accorded the 'Color Purple' stands as unanswerable proof of the high regard in which this picture is held by the more than 4,200 motion picture artists from all branches whose votes determine our awards."

The Oscars were "not politically motivated," academy President Robert Wise told United Press International. "Many fine performances have not made it to the winner's circle," the director said.

Only one other film, "The Turning Point" in 1977, was shut out despite garnering 11 nominations.

When the Oscar nominations were announced in February, and Steven Spielberg was not nominated for best director, several industry insiders interpreted that as a personal snub to the director, who was making his serious dramatic film debut with "Purple."

From the day of its release, Spielberg's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker novel sparked controversy. Feminists complained that it was sexist. While "Purple" is one of the few mainstream studio films in recent years to showcase a black cast, the movie has received mixed reactions in the black community.

It was not clear at press time what position, if any, the national NAACP has taken on the local protest. Executive Director Benjamin Hooks was out of town and unavailable for comment.

On Monday, the day of the Oscars, a letter Hooks had written to People magazine was printed in the trade paper Variety as a paid advertisement by Warner Bros., which released the film. In it, Hooks lambasted the magazine for what he termed its "deliberate exploitation of blacks' sensitivity to 'The Color Purple.' "

Hooks wrote: "There is too much good in the 'The Color Purple' to be overshadowed by the bad, and if I am not mistaken, the title was not 'The Perfect Color.' Now that you've scrutinized and presented the negative, I am hopeful that you will give equal time to exploring the secret ingredients that captured 11 nominations."

Some blacks, including members of the chapter filing the current protest, have suggested that the film's portrayal of black men was racist. "We're happy that a lot of actors who happen to be black got to work and they did a fantastic job," Edwards told The Times in December. "But for the black male the movie is very degrading."

In a letter sent to The Times on March 11, the Coalition Against Black Exploitation charged that the film "exacerbates the current schism between black males and females, degrades both sexes and portrays the black family in an exceedingly negative light to the world at large."

A spokesperson for Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's production company, said the director was on vacation and would have no comment on the local NAACP protest.

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