Did a Black Director Just Win an Oscar and No-One Else Noticed?

02/03/2012 09:57 GMT | Updated 18/02/2013 11:58 GMT

Issues of race dominated the Oscars this year, with talk rife over Billy Crystal's controversial black-face sketch, Octavia Spencer's emotion acceptance speech, and Viola Davis' unexpected defeat at the hands of Meryl Streep.

But away from the glitz and glamour, in the lesser-written-about documentary categories, a small film called "Undefeated," about a high school football team in Memphis, scooped the best documentary feature prize.

The film was exec produced by the musician formally known as Puff Daddy (and now called, well, I don't know. Diddy? P? Piddy?). Now, Diddly didn't exactly have any involvement with the making of the film, but a fortnight before the Oscars he came on board the film as an exec producer, presumably to steal all the glory in case the film did win.

And, when it triumphed in its hotly contested category (thanks perhaps more to the involvement of one Harvey Weinstein, rather than the hip-hop producer) Twiddy took to Twitter to claim all the credit, with a string of smug, self-congratulatory claims.

But amid the big boasts came this rather interesting gem: "special Congrats to @TJMckayMartin," Tweeted Fiddly. "Hes the 1st African American director to win an Academy Award!!! #UNDEFEATED !!!! RT!!!"

Ha, I thought. Of course he isn't. What about... well... surely there's... Well how about. Hmm.

Hang on. After 84 years of Academy Awards, did Thomas McKay "TJ" Martin Jr just become the first black director to win an Oscar for directing, and nobody noticed because we were all too distracted by Angelina's right leg?

Well, I noticed (I noticed Angelina's leg too) and decided to investigate. And it turns out that, actually, no. He's not the first winner.

Roger Ross Williams, director of the Oscar-winning documentary short "Music by Prudence," was the first African American director to win, taking the prize at the 82nd annual awards two years ago. (Possibly no-one noticed that because the documentary short category is even more obscure than the documentary feature category)

Still, Williams' win was for a short film (categorized as 39 minutes or under), so could we say that Martin is the first black feature director to win an Oscar? Not so fast.

In an interesting interview published just over a fortnight ago in Boston periodical the Bay State Banner, Martin was asked directly about the possibility of becoming the first black director to win an Oscar.

"I would have a hard time claiming such an achievement since I'm half black," Martin told the publication. "My experience navigating the world is night and day different than that of someone whose parents are both black.

"I personally identify much more with being mixed race. It would be hard for me to accept such an achievement without also acknowledging my Native American, Scandinavian, Chinese and Jewish roots as well!

"I definitely think it warrants a greater conversation. I wonder if there's some kind of designation for being the first mixed-race director to win for best documentary? Probably not."

So there you go. If he isn't the first African American to win an Oscar for directing, he's almost certainly the first Native American/African American/Scandinavian/Chinese/Jewish director to win an Oscar for co-directing a non-fiction film of more than 39 minutes in length.

On a more serious note though, Martins' victory does draw attention to the other major black issue facing Hollywood talent - the struggle behind the lens.

Just as it took Kathryn Bigelow's big wins with "The Hurt Locker" two years ago to draw attention to just how underrepresented female directors are by the Academy, let's hope that the success of "Undefeated" will also draw attention to the dearth of non-white directors being recognized by the Academy.

For a start, where was British director Steve McQueen at this year's Oscars? It seemed as though everyone was talking about Michael Fassbender's startling performance in "Shame," this year, yet the Academy showed the film no love.

Much as I love the documentary genres and the fact that talent gets recognized there regardless of race, it's time for the Academy to pay more attention to many talented fiction directors working today who happen not to be old, white males.

And toning down the black-face routines wouldn't hurt either.