The Complex History of African Americans and the Academy Awards

The fact is that the Oscars have been a mainstay in American popular culture and have been influential in the lives of a number of black entertainers and I, like millions of people all over the world will be tuning in on March 2nd to see who will take home an Academy Award.
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In July 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an American film marketing executive was named president of the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences. (AMPAS). She was the first black American (and only third woman after actresses Bette Davis and Fay Kanin) to be selected to head such a prestigious organization. Several decades earlier in 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar for her performance in the classic movie Gone With the Wind. Her victory was a bittersweet one in the fact that her speech was prepared for her and she and her guests were forced to set in a segregated section of the building where the event took place. These two similar yet, distinctive examples are representative of the complex relationship between black Americans and the Oscars.

From its origin as a small dinner party of a few actors and actresses, movie executives and producers in 1927, it soon moved to ceremony status in 1929. Along with fellow ceremonies such as the Miss America Pageant, the Super Bowl, the Grammys, etc. has remained one of the most popular and watch annual events by Americans as well as viewers throughout the entire world. It has captivated millions.

Throughout its existence, the African American community has had an ambiguous relationship with the Academy Awards. While the selections of McDaniel and Boone-Isaacs as best supporting actress and Academy president were/are significant by any standard and well applauded, the history of blacks and the Academy has been somewhat complex. It was not until a decade later in 1949 that another black actress, Ethel Waters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance in the movie Pinky. Unlike McDaniel, Waters was unsuccessful in her quest to win an Academy Award. She lost to fellow Pinky co-star Jeanne Crain. In 1954, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dorothy Dandridge was the first black woman nominated for best actress in a lead role for her performance in Carmen Jones. The Oscar that year went to Grace Kelly for her performance in The Country Girl. It was not until 1958, that a black male, Sidney Poitier, was nominated for an Oscar for his convict role in The Defiant Ones. Poitier was also nominated in 1963 and became the first black man to win best actor as well as first black person to win an Oscar for best actor for his lead role as a carpenter assisting a group of Arizona nuns in Lillies of the Field.

Over the following several decades, a number of African Americans were sporadically nominated for roles ranging from boxers to sharecroppers, to drug addicts, to welfare mothers to abused or scorned women, welfare mother, maids, psychics, drug dealers, prisoners, single mothers, gifted children, diplomats, presidents, dictators, domestics, musicians, famous people, to name a few.

By the early 1980s, the Hollywood branch of the NAACP criticized the Academy for what it saw as it routinely chronic lack of black nominees. Louis Gossett Jr won an award in 1982 for his role as a tight as nails drill sergeant in the movie An Officer and a Gentlemen. Interestingly, during the mid 1980s, The Color Purple, a film directed by Stephen Spielberg and based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. The film became a lightning rod of controversy and set off a number of heated and passionate debates in the black community, particularly for its less than stellar depiction of black men. In fact, even conservative publications such as the National Review denounced the film stating that there were not any black men in the movie that had any admirable or redeeming qualities.

Despite its multiple nominations and excessive amount of attention it garnered, (in fact was the first time that multiple black actresses Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery and Whoopi Goldberg received nominations for the same film), the movie failed to win any Oscars and held the record along with the 1977 movie, The Turning Point, as the most nominated films failing to win any Oscars. What made this fact even more interesting (arguably amusing) was the fact that many of the same people, including the Hollywood branch of NAACP, who were critical of the movie "threatened to sue" the Academy for failing to award any Oscars to the movie. There is no doubt that such a suit would have been unsuccessful. Moreover, such a schizophrenic reaction was not the finest moment for the NAACP. In 1987, Hollywood mega superstar Eddie Murphy took the Academy to task for what he saw as the lack or recognition given to black performers in the movie industry before giving the award for best picture that year.

During the 1990s, black actors were increasingly being nominated for their performances by the Academy. Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman and others were among these men and women. Goldberg would become the second black woman to win an Oscar for her role as the psychic medium in Ghost. By the 21st century, black nominees have been a regular staple in the Oscar circuit. In 2001, a year dubbed by a number of blacks and (and non-blacks) as "the year of the black Oscars," the Academy honored Sidney Poitier with a lifetime achievement award. Denzel Washington, Will Smith Poitier and Halle Berry were also nominated for best actress/actor. Berry and Washington were victorious and Berry would become the first black woman to win best actress.

Later years would see Jamie Foxx, (who became the first black nominee to receive two nominations in the same year. He won the Academy Award for his spellbinding performance in the movie Ray. Forrest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer and Monique take have also taken home Hollywood's most coveted honor. 2013 was very good year for black film and actors. A number of nominees, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Barkhad Abdi have been nominated in the best actor and supporting actor and actress categories and black British director Steve McQueen has been awarded with a best director nod. If he wins, McQueen will be the first black person to win in this category. Recent ads promoting the movie Twelve Years a Slave with the slogan -- "It's Time" -- unapologetically reinforces this message.

Whatever your opinion, the fact is that the Oscars have been a mainstay in American popular culture and have been influential in the lives of a number of black entertainers and I, like millions of people all over the world will be tuning in on March 2nd to see who will take home an Academy Award.

List of black performers who have been nominated for an Academy Award

* Means won an Oscar award

*Sidney Poitier
Dorothy Dandridge
Howard Rollins
Cicely Tyson
Paul Winfield
Diana Ross
Dexter Gordon
Diahann Carroll
James Earl Jones
Angela Bassett
Rupert Crosse
*Whoopi Goldberg
*Jamie Foxx
Quvenzhane Wallis
Don Cheadle
*Halle Berry
Laurence Fishburne
Viola Davis
Will Smith
*Denzel Washington
Gabourey Sibide
Rupert Crosse
*Hattie McDaniel
Ethel Waters
Jaye Davidson
Oprah Winfrey
Samuel L. Jackson
Beah Richards
Alfre Woodard
Adolph Caesar
Juanita Moore
Michael Clarke Duncan
Margaret Avery
Djimon Hounsou
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
*Cuba Gooding Jr.,
Ruby Dee
*Morgan Freeman
*Louis Gossett Jr.
Queen Latifah
Carol Channing (debatable)
Eddie Murphy
Sophie Okonedo
Barkhad Abdi - pending
*Jennifer Hudson
Taraji P.Henson
*Octavia Spencer
Lupita Nyong'o -pending
Chiwetel Ejiofor - pending

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