Black History Month 2012: A Look Back at the Academy Awards

26 Feb

The First Black Winners in each Acting Category

It’s an interesting coincidence that the Academy Awards are given out each year during Black History Month and a bit ironic given Oscar’s poor track record for honoring accomplishments by black members of the Academy. Of the 2809 awards given over the past 83 years, only 31 have been won by black men and women, barely over 1%. Let’s take a look at some of the history and accomplishments of these people working to break the color barrier in film.

Thirteen of the awards have been for acting, but it took decades for black actors to notch a win in each of the four categories. The first ever black nominee was also the first winner: Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Gone With the Wind in 1939. It took another 24 years for the next win, Sidney Poitier’s Best Actor award for Lilies of the Field. He was also the first black nominee in that category the previous year for The Defiant Ones. In 1982, Louis Gossett, Jr. took home the Best Supporting Actor for his performance in An Officer and a Gentleman. Only two other black actors had been nominated by that time, starting with Rupert Crosse for The Reivers in 1969. The longest wait was for Best Actress, which did not happen until the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001. Halle Berry took home the Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball (I strongly recommend this film albeit one of the most difficult movies to watch). Dorothy Dandridge was the first black nominee for Best Actress in 1954.

The year that Berry won was something of a turning point. 2001 saw Denzel Washington take home the Best Actor award, marking the first time that black actors won both leading role Oscars. Up until that point, only six black actors had won Oscars; seven have won between 2001 and 2010. The most successful black actors have been:

  • Denzel Washington, with five nominations and two wins (one Actor and one Supporting Actor)
  • Morgan Freeman, with five nominations and one Supporting Actor win
  • Whoopi Goldberg, with two nominations and one Supporting Actress win
  • Viola Davis, with two nominations (and a possible win tonight)

As with all actors, nominations for playing LGBT roles have been few and far between as well. In the past 84 years, only three actors have been nominated for playing clearly LGBT characters: Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game and Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery in The Color Purple. None of them won.  Our Whoopi was robbed for her stellar performance in The Color Purple.  When will it be safe to be a gay and or black character in Hollywood, or in the United States?   We know that the composition of the people voting is: 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent are male, and the median age is 62.

Oscar hasn’t been kind in most of the other categories either. Of the high-profile awards the results are dismal.

  • Best Director, only two nominations, no wins
  • Best Picture, three nominations, no wins
  • Best Original Screenplay, three nominations, no wins
  • Best Adapted Screenplay, three nominations, one win — Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious in 2009

Black Academy members have done best in the sound categories:

  • Best Original Score, eight nominations, two wins (Prince and Herbie Hancock)
  • Best Original Song, eighteen nominations, five wins, one pending
  • Best Sound/Sound Mixing, nine nominations four wins (two each for Willie D. Burton and Russell Williams, the only two nominees in this category)

Isaac Hayes was the first black person to win a non-acting award for the Theme From Shaft in 1971. Irene Cara was the first black woman to do so with her shared win for the song Flashdance (What A Feeling) in 1983. Willie D. Burton, Russell Williams, and Denzel Washington are the only black multiple Oscar winners. Burton ties Quincy Jones for the most overall nominations with seven. Jones has won no Oscars but did receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1995. In the categories not yet listed, black men and women have been nominated 12 times in five categories with only one win, Roger Ross Williams in 2009 for the Best Documentary Short Subject Music by Prudence. Besides Quincy Jones, four black performers have won special awards, James Baskett (1948), Sidney Poitier (2002), James Earl Jones (2011), and Oprah Winfrey (the Hersholt in 2011).

One of the best films ever made holds a special, unwanted distinction. The Color Purple holds the record for the most nominations without a single win. With 11 nominations in 1985, it is one of the most nominated films of all time. It received nods for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (two nominations), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Walking away empty-handed, the film tied the record set in 1977 by The Turning Point. What a shameful night for the Academy.

Sadly, this year doesn’t move things forward very much. The wonderful movie The Help is poised to do well with four nominations (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (two nominations, including Golden Globe Winner Octavia Spencer)). The only other black nominee is Siedah Garrett with her second nomination for Best Original Song for Rio. While no-one should win an award solely for the color of their skin, it is a sad statement about the motion picture industry that it has taken so long for so few wins. After a strong decade of recognition, this year’s list is unacceptable. Let’s hope next year’s films show greater diversity.

7 Responses to “Black History Month 2012: A Look Back at the Academy Awards”

  1. Didion February 26, 2012 at 7:50 am #

    I am so rooting for Viola Davis. She was just wonderful. But as you probably know I was much less enthusiastic about The Help — I just got so frustrated by the cartoonish white characters (Hilly and the Jessica Chastain character) and the bizarre politics of pies.

    I think I’m especially frustrated because I can see this being a really good film if it’d had a braver screenwriter and/or director.

    I’m still frustrated that Kim Wayans and Adepero Oduye weren’t nominated for their roles in Pariah. Sigh.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 26, 2012 at 7:57 am #


      You have me at a loss for words here. I completely agree with you and thus don’t know what to say!

  2. Jay February 26, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    It would be interesting to see a follow-up essay regarding the Academy’s record with other minorities–the statistic that only 31 of 2809 winners have been African American is stunning, and it makes me wonder how Americans of Asian, Latin American, and Native American extraction have fared.

    It would also be interesting to look at the percentages from some arbitrary cut-off date such as 1970 (an African American historian I saw on CSpan’s BookTV made the interesting point that there’s really only been legal equality for African Americans since approximately 1970–so the sadly slow progress from 1865-1970 can be partially discounted, since there wasn’t any semblance of a level playing field in that era).

    It would also be interesting to see a breakdown of Foreign language film winners. Of course, plenty of Brits and Aussies have been embraced by Oscar, but Foreign Language winners would provide another window into the Academy’s attitude toward underrepresented groups.

    I love statistical analyses, as your husband can attest, so forgive my flurry of suggestions.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 27, 2012 at 8:30 am #

      I’m starting to wonder if you, too, need to be a social worker. You bring up so many good points that either I, or my husband will have to follow up with regarding data and disproportionality. My focus is typically LGBT folk and black folk in regards to the intersections of oppression, but I really do need to do more research on the marginalization of Latinos, Asians, and Indigenous peoples.

    • rhulshofschmidt February 27, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Excellent questions, Jay, and somewhat tricky to answer. There are some pretty good lists of Asian or Hispanic nominees and winners. It gets complicated because so many of the Hispanic people are international; even more complicated, Asian is a regional rather than ethnic or racial definition and becomes quickly contentious. Focusing on your narrower definition of “Americans of [X] extraction” it is pretty clear that all non-whites fare poorly. That narrower definition removes five of the black nominations, too. Three black British actors (Jaye Davidson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Sophie Okonedo) have had supporting noms; Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou has two supporting nods. Oscar is, as you note, pretty American in general. Other than British, Canadian, and Australian actors, non-Americans don’t fare very well. It will be worth taking some time to do a deeper analysis at some point.

      • Jay February 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

        Thank you both for your kind replies. This was not the first time I’ve responded to a posting with a flurry of questions–it would be more generous (and less onerous on y’all) if I were to offer to do such digging for myself, and give you the data as a guest researcher, so I appreciate your positive responses (when an eye-rolling sigh of “thanks for reading, Jay” would be an utterly understandable reaction).

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 27, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

        I think you know both of us to know we LOVE great questions. I especially love questions that lead to movement in the area of social justice, so NO eye rolling here. You are always welcome as a guest contributor!

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