Oscar Oversights

Oppenheimer swept the Oscars with seven Academy Awards, including best director (Christopher Nolan), actor (Cillian Murphy) and best picture. American Fiction drew five nominations, including Jeffrey Wright for best supporting actor, but won only for best adapted screenplay. With demands for a “diversity requirement,” that might come as a surprise, but it’s not the first time the Academy has ignored a brilliant performance by a black actor. Consider, for example, Roscoe Lee Browne in The Cowboys, from 1972.

The ranch hands of Wil Andersen (John Wayne) run off to search for gold, so Andersen must train on a crew of boys to drive his cattle to Belle Fourche. For a cook, the rancher takes on Jebediah Nightlinger, played by Browne, and the two men get to know each other.

“You know, in the late war between the states I served under an officer just like you,” Nightlinger says. “As a matter of fact, I shot that military gentleman in the buttocks. Just outside Vicksburg,” and received a medal for that duty.

“In my regiment,” Andersen shoots back. “I was known as Old Ironpants. You might keep that in mind.”

He does, and so do the boys, who have never seen a black man. The drive rolls along in harmony, tailed by a caravan of prostitutes. Nightlinger informs madame Kate (Colleen Dewhurst) that these are just boys, so she wonders if a grown man might be interested.

“Well, I have the inclination, the maturity, and the wherewithal,” Nightlinger explains, “but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”

About half way through movie, a gang of rustlers led by Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) murders Andersen and steals the herd. Nightlinger makes a plan to get it back, and allows the rustlers to take him captive. Their first response is to string him up.

“Since you mean to hang me, I ask to atone to my maker,” Nightlinger pleads. Watts gives him one minute.

Where to begin? I regret trifling with married women. I’m thoroughly ashamed at cheating at cards. I deplore my occasional departures from the truth. Forgive me for taking your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth. Above all, forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger—and those I am about to.

The boys then spring from hiding, free Nightlinger, and gun down the bad guys. In Belle Fourche, they buy a gravestone for Andersen, and set it up in a clearing on the trail. Roscoe Lee Browne carried this movie but never got a nomination for best supporting actor. The award went to Joel Grey for Cabaret. Let the viewer judge.

In American Fiction, meanwhile, “a novelist who’s fed up with the establishment profiting from black entertainment uses a pen name to write a book that propels him into the heart of the hypocrisy he claims to disdain.”  For overlooked works by black writers see Lonely Crusade by Chester Himes. Richard Wright is well known for Native Son and Black Boy but many readers are unaware of his time in the Communist Party. As Wright explained in his contribution to The God That Failed (1949), the Communists held his intelligence and literary skill against him.

White Stalinists smeared Wright as a “bastard intellectual” who “talks like a book,” an “incipient Trotskyite,” with an “anti-leadership attitude.” The Communist Party, “felt it had to assassinate me morally merely because I did not want to be bound by its decisions,” and Wright got the message loud and clear. “I knew that if they held state power I should have been declared guilty of treason and my execution would have followed.”

In the right hands, that story would make a great dramatic film. So would Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995) providing the film included the full back story.

In 1965, the author’s mother Ann Dunham marries the Indonesian Lolo Soetoro but young Barry finds that his true father is missing. It turns out to be the Kenyan Barack Obama, who “bequeaths his name” to the American. Encouraged by the black poet “Frank,” Barry attends college and travels to Kenya to discover his roots. Barack Obama completes law school, goes into politics and in 2008, becomes president of the United States. He completes two terms, but the story doesn’t end there.

In the massive Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Garrow reveals that, “Dreams from My Father was not a memoir or an autobiography; it was instead, in multitudinous ways, without any question a work of historical fiction.” (Garrows’ emphasis) and “its most important composite character was the narrator himself.”

Swaths of the Dreams novel appear to be lifted from I Dreamed of Africa and African Nights by Italian writer Kuki Gallman. “Frank,” who bears striking resemblance to the 44th president, turns out to be Frank Marshall Davis, a black Communist who spent much of his life supporting the all-white dictatorship of the Soviet Union. What the Kenyan Barack H. Obama thought of all this is unknown.

In all his writings from 1958 to 1964, now housed at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture in New York, the Kenyan makes not a single mention of an American wife and Hawaiian-born son. “Frank” disappeared from the audio version of Dreams and everything under the Obama brand, including the books of Michelle Obama and “Obama’s Narrator” David Axelrod.

Frank is also missing from the former president’s A Promised Land, released in 2020, and in Dreams from My Father he received only a single mention. The composite character, Barack Obama, continues to wield power through the puppet Joe Biden, and Obama’s  legacy is apparent in this disastrous current administration.

Davis’s relationship to Obama would provide material for a great movie, and perhaps bag some Oscars. This year’s winner, for all its undeniable artistry, is like those 1960s beach and bikini movies. What they reveal is interesting but what they conceal is crucial.

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