The History of the Black Actress (According to the Academy)

In 1939, when Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to win an Oscar for the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind, she accepted the award for Best Supporting actress by saying:

 I sincerely hope that I can always be a credit to my race, and the motion picture industry…my heart is too full to tell you just how I feel…and may I say thank you.

 This pivotal moment in American history felt like a visual and tangible representation of change. Although there is heavy critique about the roles black actors were afforded, this sort of honoring of Hattie McDaniel speaks volumes to the acknowledgment of her work as an artist and as a possible window of opportunity for future black performers.

Then it would be another 51 years until America saw another black women receive the award for Best Supporting Actress.

The next black actress to win the award wouldn’t come until 1990. Whoopi Goldberg claimed victory in 1990 for her work in the film Ghost. In her joyous and emotional acceptance speech she spoke about wanting to receive this award since she was a child and ended her speech emphasizing her lifelong dream of becoming an actor.


Recent years have been better. Sixteen years after Winfrey won, Jennifer Hudson lifted the same award for her role in DreamGirls in 2006. In 2009, Mo’Nique won the award for her role in the film Precious, and just two years later in 2011, Octavia Spencer won it for her role in The Help. This year, Lupita N’yongo has been nominated for her beautifully tragic portrayal of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

These last few years show progress in this area, but the sad reality is that within the 86 years that the Academy has been active only five black women have received the award for Best Supporting Actress.

Another, more daunting, fact is that only one black woman has won an Academy Award for Best Actress within almost a century of films being honored at the Oscars. When Halle Berry was honored in 2002 for her work in Monster’s Ball, she addressed the discrepancy head-on.

Berry’s acceptance speech called attention to the work of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and for her peers, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox and Angela Bassett. She also makes the remark that her acceptance of the award is for every “nameless, faceless, woman of color who now has a chance because of the door that has been opened.”

The hope that Goldberg and Berry summon in their speeches is countered by the decades in which black women have been underrepresented in film. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Last year the LA Times reported that “Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male… Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%.” The Academy is not only known as a prestigious organization, but an organization that prides itself in acknowledging the many men and women so active in the industry. Even with this reputation, the organization continues to represent homogeneity as it fails to honor the diverse and talented men and women in the film industry.

For now, I’ll honor them in my own way:

Black Women Nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role:

1954, Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones

1972, Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues

1972, Cicely Tyson, Sounder

1974, Diahann Carroll, Claudine

1985, Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple 

1993, Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do with It

2001, Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (Won)

2009, Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

2011, Viola Davis, The Help

2012, Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Black Women Nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role

1939, Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (Won)

1949, Ethel Waters, Pinky

1959, Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life

1967, Carol Channing, Thoroughly Modern Millie

1967, Beah Richards, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

1983, Alfre Woodard, Cross Creek

1985, Margaret Avery, The Color Purple

1985, Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple

1990, Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (Won)

1996, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies

2002, Queen Latifah, Chicago

2004, Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda

2006, Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (Won)

2007, Ruby Dee, American Gangster

2008, Viola Davis, Doubt

2008, Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

2009, Mo’Nique, Precious (Won)

2011, Octavia Spencer, The Help (Won)

2013, Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

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