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Alfre Woodard on the Oscars’ blinding whiteness: ‘The Academy is what it is’

Alfre Woodard will be honoured for career achievements this weekend at the Toronto Black Film Festival, where her new movie Knucklehead will be screened.

Fabrizio Maltese

"Oscar is what it is," the actress Alfre Woodard says. "The Academy is what it is." The Academy, of course, is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which finds itself in the headlines this year for all the wrong reasons.

Woodard, an AMPAS board member who serves on several of its committees, spoke to The Globe by phone this week about the blinding whiteness of the 20 nominated actors for this year's (and last year's) Oscar competition. "People put much too much stock in it, from my perspective," she says. "You can't ask from it something that it can't give you."

What Oscar will give later this month is host Chris Rock (who has already tweeted that the Oscars were the "White BET Awards") and the awkward situation of awarding an honorary award to a director – Spike Lee – who has said he will not attend the televised ceremony.

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What Lee points out, and what many others, including Woodard, have echoed, is that the lack of diversity represented by the Academy nominations is a symptom of a problem, not a problem in itself. "The conversation really is about how many people of colour, not just African-Americans, who are brilliant actors were not considered for casting for all the films that were made last year," Woodard says. "The people that film companies cast in the stories don't reflect our daily lives.

"It makes it all seem weird," the 12 Years a Slave star continues. "Where are we, on the moon?"

(If not the moon, then perhaps Hawaii, the setting for last year's Aloha, which starred Emma Stone as a character of mixed Chinese, Hawaiian and Swedish ancestry.)

Asked if she was disappointed with what many perceive to be tone-deaf comments by actors Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine over the Oscars' diversity row, Woodard says that "people can only be who they are," and that she can't be disappointed in people with whom she has no relationship. "I feel nothing for what they said. It has nothing to do with me."

Woodard will be honoured for career achievements this weekend at the Toronto Black Film Festival, where her new movie Knucklehead will be screened. Recently, Fabienne Colas, the festival's founder, said in an interview with The Canadian Press that the industry's diversity problem extends beyond Hollywood's borders, too. While movies such as Selma and Creed were being made in the United States, the Haitian native noted there is dearth of roles for people of colour in Canada.

"In a year when you will not have The Book of Negroes, who are they going to nominate in the Canadian Screen Awards?" asked Colas, who also founded the Montreal International Black Film Festival. "That means we don't have those roles. They don't really exist."

In that gritty urban drama Knucklehead, Woodard plays the mother of the protagonist – a delusional young man (developmentally disabled or mentally ill, portrayed incredibly by The Wire's Gbenga Akinnagbe) who believes all his problems are just a psychotropic drug prescription away from being solved.

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Woodard's character is a hellish parent, in the spectrum of Mo'Nique's horrible mom in Precious. "When I read the Knucklehead script, she frightened me," says Woodard, who has 18 Emmy nominations, three Screen Actors Guild awards and one Oscar nomination to her credit. "But then, I especially want to run toward these roles that give you pause. I take roles when I think I can offer something that somebody might overlook in the portrayal."

In other words, Woodard is what she is: An actor. She realized at an early age that she could tell stories, and that "moving images was the most powerful tool in the history of man."

Now she knows it is a business as well, one that she can't control. And that's okay.

Our whole conversation took place with her calling from a rental car parking lot at a Phoenix airport, until Woodard had to get going. "Life is all about stripping away all the false ideas of where power is, where acceptance is, and where control is," she says in closing. "It's about being able to live in a real comfortable space and be in peace about it."

And if she never wins an Oscar?

"When awards happen, it's usually a joyous event. It's fun and it's lovely, but that's it. I mean, you don't think about prom night other than on prom night."

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The Toronto Black Film Festival runs to Feb. 14; a tribute to Alfe Woodard, followed by a screening of Knucklehead, happens Feb. 13 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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