When the nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards were released last month, there was an uproar in Hollywood and beyond about every major acting category being filled with white stars. It led to major personalities such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee announcing they'd be skipping the Oscars, an immediate upheaval to the Academy's membership policies, and a widespread call for host Chris Rock to address the issue in his monologue.
Needless to say, the show itself on February 28 will be an event to catch. But what about the Grammys, which take place this Monday, February 15? They're not quite as high profile when it comes to controversial issues like race, and clearly that's a preferable position than the Oscars. Although there was some murmuring about last year's Best Rap Album category, a look at the full field of winners provides a vastly more diverse crop of talent.
As Houston Press pointed out this week, the Grammys have never really had a diversity problem in comparison to the Oscars. The latter held its first ceremony in 1929, 29 years before the first Grammys. During that time, over hundreds of nominations, just four actors of color took home Academy Awards: One black actress (Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind), two Latinos (Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, who won twice), and one Japanese actress (Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara). In the first Grammys ceremony, half as many musicians of color were handed major awards than the Oscars had managed in nearly three decades.
To be fair, the Grammys saw a little backlash a few years ago when the number of recognized categories shrunk from 109 to 78, but this wasn't an issue directly tied to race. And as Houston Press mentions, not a single year of the Grammys has gone by without a performer of color winning an award. Why? Of course, these are different mediums, but it also may have to do with the eras in which they originated.
When the Oscars debuted, America was not nearly as progressive with respect to race issues as it was when the Grammys first hit. That was in 1958, a crucial time for the Civil Rights movement, when the battle for equality for African Americans was a major national conversation. Both inaugural ceremonies reflected the times they were in, and seem to have largely stayed rooted there over the years, a detriment to the former and a point of pride for the latter.
Strangely, a large portion of Academy Awards presented to black actors seem to come for performances in which they portray characters facing serious racial adversity, if not total dehumanization in stories about slavery. This decade, Lupita Nyong'o and Octavia Spencer are the only black actors to win Oscars, both for supporting roles. Spencer won as a housemaid in the 1960s era period piece The Help (2011), and Nyong'o won as a slave in 12 Years a Slave (2013). There's not much love for the modern, complex lives African-Americans live today — not on the screen and certainly not on stage at the Oscars.
As for the Grammys, the ceremony can rest easy knowing that for almost 60 years, it hasn't had a diversity issue. The easiest way to explain that is probably because the people who put it together have a better overall picture of American culture than those behind the Oscars.
Cover image: The GRAMMYs via YouTube