The Academy Awards have come and gone but T.J. Martin made history when he became the first African American to win an Oscar for a best documentary feature film, Undefeated.??
There have been various firsts for African Americans at the Oscars, though some critics would say not enough. In all, 27 African Americans have taken homes the Statuettes, having won in categories ranging from Best Actor to Best Original Song. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929. But for African Americans being recognized, it started in 1940 with Hattie McDaniel, who became the first Black person (male or female) to win an Academy Award. Since then, Sidney Poitier went on to become the first Black actor to win Best Actor; Denzel Washington, the first Black actor to win two acting awards; Halle Berry, first Black actress to win the Best Actress award.
Now, Martin adds to the list of firsts. Yet, the Seattle native did not garner much press surrounding his historic win. “He won the highest honor in the cinematic arts. Thats a major first,” notes Gil Robertson IV, founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA). “One reason he did not get much publicity may be that he didnt have a budget for publicity and another could be the fact that documentaries generally dont receive board-base, mainstream coverage. One more possibility is that his team may not be connected to the African American media.”
Undefeated was directed by Daniel Lindsay and Martin. The film documents the struggles of a high school football team, the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, as they attempt a winning season after years of losses. Founded in 1899, the Manassas High School Tigers has never won a playoff game. Sean “Diddy” Combs joined the film as an executive producer and took home an Oscar as well for his efforts.??
With Martins win, African Americas are represented in nearly every Academy Awards category, having been nominated or having won. But says Robertson, this does not point to a more diverse Oscars. “I dont think this means the Academy is becoming more diverse. The Academy is a reflection of what its founders and executive body wants it to be,” he points out. “I dont think its necessarily racist, but just the way it is. If Blacks and other communities want something different, then we will have to invest in the creation of such an entity [like AAFCA], and support its merit, so that the award has economic muscle.”