Eddie Murphy, Race, And The Oscar Tradition

I looked through the history of African-American Academy Awards hosts for The Loop21 and concluded that as long as Eddie Murphy doesn’t emulate Whoopi Goldberg’s plethora of imitations and sticks to Richard Pryor and Sammy Davis Jr. instead, he should do just fine:

The Academy Awards, which have not been exceptionally progressive when it comes to recognizing the work of black actors and directors, had an animated duck host the Oscars before they tapped an African-American emcee.

Donald Duck co-hosted the Academy Awards as part of a crew that included Bob Hope in 1958, but it wasn’t until 1972 that Sammy Davis, Jr. took the stage with Helen Hayes, Alan King, and Jack Lemmon. Diana Ross followed him in 1974, again as part of a group, and Davis reprised his role in a group the next year. Richard Pryor hosted with Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, and Jane Fonda in 1977 and again as part of an ensemble in 1983. Whoopi Goldberg became the first African-American to handle the hosting duties on her own in 1994, a role she’d repeat in 1996, 1999, and 2002. And Chris Rock was the last black host to run the show, in 2005….If Murphy wants to remind the audience that despite flops like Norbit, he belongs among their number, he might do well to follow in Davis’ footsteps and draw on the skills that bolstered his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls and sing.

I don’t think, as I know some folks do, that Murphy’s being set up to fail, that he’ll be asked to be edgy when the inevitable reaction of a bunch of privileged white actors to a politicized routine by a black man will be to take offense. Instead, I think Murphy has all the tools to be a fantastic host, but that he needs to make sure to put together a performance that doesn’t remind the audiences in the theater and at home that he’s used those tools in pure pursuit of money far more often (at least in recent years) that he’s applied them to the cause of art. His race will be a factor in how Murphy’s received, but so will the sense of how much he actually cares about movie greatness.