This year’s bleached list of Oscar nominees has evoked such fierce resentment that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to publicly acknowledge its diversity issue. That a revived hashtag got this rolling is a testament to social media’s influence, but the Academy being held accountable via a flame beneath its ass is long overdue. I won’t say mufuckas never loved us, but years worth of evidence certainly supports the claim.
The neglect of minority performers by the Academy is longstanding. Twenty years ago, Jesse Jackson organized a protest of the 68th Academy Awards because just one of the 166 nominees was black. This disregard for varied stories is nearly as routine as winners getting played off during verbose speeches. The irony of #OscarsSoWhite—Jada Pinkett-Smith’s proposed boycott of the ceremony to President Barack Obama's executive branch two cents, included—is that it coincides with the 10th anniversary of Three 6 Mafia winning Best Original Song. Their victory and performance of "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp," the first rap song performed at the Oscars, stand out in contrast to the awards' egregious whiteness. But at the same time, they're also viewed as products of it.
The 78th Academy Awards took place at a time of faux progress in Hollywood. Four years before, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry became the first black performers to win awards for leading roles in the same year: Berry, the first black woman to be awarded Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Washington, the successor to Sidney Poitier as just the second black man to win the top award. Jamie Foxx become the third in 2005 due to his uncanny reanimation of Ray Charles (Morgan Freeman also took home the Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Million Dollar Baby), and 2006 saw Terrence Howard—the star of Hustle & Flow, the film underlined by "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp"—earn a Best Actor nomination. The big winner that night, however, was Crash, which Howard also appeared in.
Crash's legacy, contrived storylines about racial and cultural tension aside, is being one of the worst films to win Best Picture. Of its six nominations, the lone actor recognized was Matt Dillon, who presented the award for Best Rap Album at the Grammys with Crash co-star (and, you know, rapper) Ludacris a month before.
It was a moment of foreshadowing that, in hindsight, rings like an obvious ploy to promote Academy-orchestrated racial harmony—and Crash, itself. This was an industry plant long before the term entered the lexicon, and it's more dubious than the Academy scrambling for notable black Oscars presenters to repair its image this year. Better yet, it’s not the lone reach for a different audience that the Academy made in 2006.
When hip-hop made its debut performance at the Oscars, the performers couldn’t have been less Academy-friendly. At the time, Three 6 Mafia was reveling in the glow of their most notable album, 2005’s appropriately titled Most Known Unknown. Prior to that, the group was best known for songs such as BET Rap City staples "Who Run It," "Sippin’ on Some Syrup," and "Ridin Spinners," sweatbox house party anthems like "Slob On My Knob" and "Dis Bitch Dat Doe," and, of course, tearing the club up. "Stay Fly" became their biggest hit the same summer that Hustle & Flow was released, and they were tapped to channel their Memphis sound into music for the film for the sake of authenticity. And just as the rise in popularity of southern hip-hop during the early aughts opened the door for Hustle & Flow’s creation, it also helped motivate the Academy’s swipe at more diverse viewers.
Let’s grab the elephant in the room by its tusks: "sophisticated" award shows like the Grammys and Oscars are boring. Although there is a demographic who appreciates the dry elements of their production, there’s another only watching in anticipation to affix the Jordan Cry Face to whomever is most deserving. But with social media in its infancy in 2006, fueling the community joke was impossible. One way to make the Oscars more engaging was introducing non-traditional performers. Three 6 Mafia’s performance—and mere presence—was the antithesis to the Academy.
The Oscars had good, memorable performances before 2006: a teenage Michael Jackson’s haunting rendition of Ben’s namesake in 1973 and Madonna’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired romp through Dick Tracy’s "Sooner or Later" in 1991, to name a couple. However, the presentation of "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp" was elaborate. The stage was reimagined as a brothel; dancers assumed roles as hookers, Johns, and cops. The world’s oldest profession was expressed as American Pimp with the choreography of an old Janet Jackson video. Terrence Howard turned down the chance to perform the song, but Taraji P. Henson— whose mousy character sang its hook in Hustle & Flow—added vocals and showed the range of talent that’s finally scoring recognition today. History was made, and Three 6 Mafia, makers of "Weak Azz Bitch," performed at the Oscars without invoking the FCC’s wrath or any awkward censoring.
Above all, they were just happy to be there. "We haven't thought about winning or losing," Juicy J told Billboard ahead of the ceremony. "Being nominated and also performing, we've already won." And then they actually won.
Queen Latifah, who’d transitioned from rapper to Oscar nominee, had to preface the announcement by indulging the audience: yes, "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp" was an "unusual choice" for an Oscar nominated song. She was acceding that what the group, song, and film represent is wildly dissonant from the Oscars' norm. The Academy represents the "elite"; Three 6 Mafia a nouveau riche polar opposite, and their attire in contrast to the black tie event only emphasized this. These dudes, in the eyes of many, didn’t look like they belonged. But not only was their presence historical, their win was deserved.
"It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp" was the right choice. The song wasn’t created just to score a nomination, because no rap song was nominated until "Lose Yourself" in 2003, and Eminem didn’t even show up to collect his award. Furthermore, it had an intrinsic bond with the plot: Terrence Howard’s DJay was pedaling women and dirt weed at a barely-sustainable level—a 30-something aspiring to be a rapper out of fear of being a Never Was.
The song communicated a pimp in crisis' struggle in very honest fashion, but criticism equal to the applause accompanied its victory. A 2006 Washington Post article explored the win’s divisive aftermath:
Deborah Veney Robinson of Silver Spring had pretty much the same reaction. So did Juaquin Jessup of Northwest Washington.
"It was just like during the time when all the blaxploitation films were coming out with African Americans being portrayed as pimps and hos and gangsters," said Jessup, 51.
"It was another example of how they pick the worst aspects of black life and reward that. There are more important things in our culture that need focus more than the hardships of a pimp," he said. "The only place many people see our culture is through movies and on television, and at the same time, this country is experiencing an influx of people coming over here from all over the world, and the only thing they see of black America through the media is . . . pimps and gangsters and all of that. It's always some low-down brother or some welfare mother."
When Denzel finally got his Pacino Oscar (one that was owed to him, like the award Al Pacino was given for his scenery-devouring Scent of a Woman performance), it was for playing an amoral cop. Halle Berry won hers for enduring the crippling struggle of a beleaguered single mom who embarks on a controversial interracial relationship, graphic sex scene incorporated. Those who didn't view Three 6 Mafia’s win as groundbreaking dismissed it and their performance as minstrelsy on the grandest stage. Performing that song before an audience that inherently understands its context is vastly different than doing it at the Oscars, a setting where most people in attendance and watching at home probably don’t have the ear for hip-hop and never saw Hustle & Flow. The problem has always hinged on what the Academy appreciates because what's neglected underscores what’s valued, so the oversight and ensuing fallout will continue until nuanced roles by minority performers are recognized.
Three 6 Mafia enjoyed an indelible night at the Oscars. As the peak of their run, it inspired an MTV reality show and gave Juicy J an early spark to his solo career through visibility. Regardless, it will remain subject to criticism because of a situation the Academy has created. Naturally, the Oscars are proud of the moment, uploading the footage to their YouTube page like a badge of honor they have yet to truly earn. Changes to address the diversity dilemma have been promised, but until their impact is felt, that promise holds little weight—especially when the cast of Straight Outta Compton can't even get an invitation to the big show.
Hollywood's narrow scope created a divide that Three 6 Mafia's Oscar victory is exemplary of. Shame on it, indeed.