Day 6

Louis Gossett Jr. on race, Hollywood and the Oscars

Nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced Thursday. Critics bristled at the lack of diversity, pointing to notable snubs like David Oyelowo who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and Ava DuVernay who directed the film. Some are calling it the whitest Oscars in nearly twenty years.

Nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced Thursday. Critics bristled at the lack of diversity, pointing to notable snubs like David Oyelowo who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and Ava DuVernay who directed the film. Some are calling it the whitest Oscars in nearly twenty years. Louis Gossett Jr. was the first black man to win an Oscar in a supporting role, for his 1982 part in An Officer and A Gentleman and now stars in The Book of Negroes. He tells Brent what he thinks of this cast of nominees, and how race plays out in the industry. 

What did you think when you saw the lack of diversity in the nominations when they were announced on Thursday?

Well, I'm of a spiritual mindset  taught to me by Mandela et cetera  that we have the automatic assumption that their beliefs and morals are everybody's. But between you and I, Selma is one of the best and it should always be one of the best, as 12 Years A Slave was. So we bring to it a consciousness that if we're not included in some of the awards, it doesn't mean all things are over. 

Sounds like you were surprised that Selma director Ava Duvernay and lead actor David Oyelowo weren't nominated...

Oscar-winning actor, Louis Gossett Jr., as Daddy Moses in The Book of Negroes. (CBC)
It is a surprise. But they think about what's popular and it happened during Roots  a rejection  but it's an automatic assumption of superiority that they know what's good and what's bad. I don't blame them. It's just the dying mentality. We need to be more compassionate to one another. So if we're not included in Oscars, Golden Globes, et cetera, that doesn't mean we've been rejected.

There are reports that the Academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male. So you're one of the 6 percent then, if you're a voting member...

That's the nature of the beast. But we're growing up, all of us. It'll happen less and less but this time it's happening because there is a proliferation of our African-American stories in many movies. There's a rejection of that, 'enough, we've had enough, let's go back to what is normal.'  And what's normal is George Clooney, Michael Keaton, Clint Eastwood  all the great ones. But they are not the end all to entire mankind. 

So when you say they've had enough, are you thinking about how last year, 12 Years A Slave won best picture, and Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her role in that? Do you think that this year is a kind of push-back, a reaction to what happened last year?

Yes, it's deep in the soul but it's a dying mentality. But before it dies it has its last emotional, spiritual thing of 'oh, let's stop this right now, let's go back to normal', which is not normal. But The Book of Negroes, up there in your country, out-rated the hockey game.That's a miracle. We should take an example from you guys.

Do you remember what it was like, when you found out that you were nominated for An Officer And a Gentleman

I felt like I was dreaming. And even sitting there, I took the mentality of what we came up with and I said [to myself 'well, it's going to make sense that the Oscar's going to go to James Mason, or the Oscar's going to go to Robert Preston. It's their last movie and they're our favourites, so I'm just going to relax and be content with being in the top five. And when they said my name, it was like being in a dream. My agent hit me in the chest and said, 'they said your name, get up there.' I was not prepared to win the Oscar. 

You were the second male black actor and first male African-American actor to win an Oscar. Did you understand then that you were taking a role in history?

Lupita Nyong'o, best supporting actress winner for her role in 12 Years a Slave, speaks on stage at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., on March 2, 2014. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
I was in shock. But even then there was the mentality that, okay we've done this and we feel good, and I didn't get a job for a year, and never have made a million dollars. I could take that personally, or understand the concept and continue on this path. I've gotten what is equivalent to the Oscars by a global acceptance of a performance, which is bigger than the Oscars. The Oscars will grow up to that, eventually, but it takes a minute. 

It seems unjust that you didn't have the same opportunities that you would expect from that. 

Well that resentment, that mentality almost killed me. I don't do that anymore. There's a bigger picture. I had 20 minutes with Nelson Mandela, and if anybody had a reason to be rejected and be resentful, it would have been him. He came out of that prison after 27 years with a smile on his face. It's a bigger picture than that. So I get a position now to teach young people now, what is most important. The Oscars are extremely important, so are the Emmys, but the mentality of us being one people on this planet is bigger than the Oscars.

Do you think its a mistake for people to think that things will change as a result of a black actor winning an Oscar, or a black female director winning an Oscar?

Well if it doesn't we can't take it personally. It's foolish to have you hopes and your dreams and your loves depending on something like the Oscar, or the Emmys. Although I've got them all, so that's something I'm very fortunate to have, but what gets us to that position is that we cannot rely our happiness on whether we get it or not. 

You were born in New York City, and you've said that you've never experienced racism until you were an established actor in Hollywood.

Face-to-face racism, which happened in the '60s in Hollywood, California — Beverly Hills. I was handcuffed to a tree, because I was walking around looking at movie stars homes in Beverly Hills. I had a 20 minutes drive, they took very good care of me, all the people I grew up with — the Lew Wassermans and the William Morris agency, they treated me like a king. We treated one another like kings in childhood because we all came out of the depression. We took very good care of ourselves, and as a result, the Woody Allens, the Barbara Streisands, the Carole Kings, all of us, took very good care. We were a family. So the first time of abject racism on my personal part was when they took me and put me in first class on a plane, and put me in a Beverly Hills hotel, gave me a rental car — a convertible — and it took me four and a half hours to get back to that hotel because I met every cop in that neighbourhood. I'm wondering, 'who the hell do you think you are?'

Hollywood clearly has changed since then. 

Absolutely, and so has the Beverly Hills police department. 

When young black actors come to you for advice, what do you tell them?

There's no such thing as impossible. It's their turn.

Do you wish that that was reflected in this year's nominations?

Well it happens, and maybe it's now a signal for us to correct ourselves. 

Did you vote for Selma for best picture? Can I ask you that?

Okay, I'll tell you. Yes, I did. 

So you think it has a chance? 

It's going to be tough because there's some beautiful movies out there. Clint Eastwood is a master.

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