The History of Black Actors and Hollywood’s Oscar Gold

Guest Perspectives: Bobby Rivers, Former VH1 celebrity talk show host, ABC News film critic & entertainment reporter,  syndicated game show host and a Food Network host. Bobby Rivers is a SAG-AFTRA union member available for professional entertainment work and you can see examples of his on-camera skills at this link.

The starting point is “Gone with the Wind” and groundbreaker Hattie McDaniel. The 1939 epic Civil War romance drama is a true Hollywood classic in the quality sense of the word. Not just because it’s old. It is a marvel of production values, acting and casting. So popular was this film that it did not air on TV until the mid 1970s. Until that time, “Gone with the Wind” would be re-released and make even more money theatrically. My sister and I saw it on a big screen as kids before it premiered on CBS. By the way, this box office champ was also a ratings champ in its network debut.  Let’s talk about Hattie.

“Gone with the Wind” won 10 Academy Awards. It took Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel, cast as “Mammy” to the film’s central character, the headstrong Southern belle “Scarlett O’Hara” played famously by British actress Vivien Leigh, became the first African American nominated for an Oscar. And she was the first to win. Hattie McDaniel won for Best Supporting Actress. Vivien Leigh won for Best Actress.

“Gone with the Wind” (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Shown from left: Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel


Leigh gives a riveting performance as Scarlett O’Hara.  She commands the screen throughout the entire drama.  There is only one actor who can pull focus from Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind”  and that is Hattie McDaniel.  She’s talented, charismatic, powerful.  She takes an archaic film character and punches through the stereotype to give Mammy emotional dimension and range as she ages along with the lead characters. In a heartbreaking staircase scene with co-star and fellow Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Olivia de Havilland, we see why McDaniel won the Oscar.  It’s great acting coupled with mastery of screen technique.  Walking upstairs as Mammy tells Melanie the tragic events that have befallen Scarlett’s family may seen simple.  It’s not.  The two actress must hit certain marks for camera angles, camera focus and lighting.  They must pace their staircase ascent.  All this detail is done while McDaniel delivers a lot of heart-wrenching dialogue and cries. It’s a memorable scene.  But Hattie was a black actress within the racial borders of Hollywood stereotypes of the time. Even though she could move with ease from drama to comedy to musicals and hold her own onscreen opposite such greats as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Irene Dunne, Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda, she would never rise above the role of maid or housekeeper.  In more than one 1940s film, she was the only Oscar winner in the cast but was given basically a glorified bit part as the maid.  1942’s “In This Our Life” gave McDaniel her best role after “Gone With The Wind.”  It’s small but significant.  She’s paired again with Olivia de Havilland in a modern day tale of rival sisters.  Olivia plays the good sister.  Bette Davis chews up the scenery as the bad sister who steals the good sister’s man.  That’s the wrapping for a race story.  The bad sister drives drunk, causes a fatality and flees the scene.  She blames the crime on the maid’s son, a responsible and studious young man in school to become a lawyer.  Hattie plays the family maid and the young man’s single working mother.  Police believe the bad sister because she’s white.  The good sister believes the maid. Again, McDaniel and de Havilland have solid chemistry.  1942’s comedy, “The Male Animal,” shows the infuriating limitations of race for black actors in Hollywood.  There’s Hattie sharing screen time with, again, Olivia de Havilland plus Henry Fonda, Joan Leslie and Jack Carson in a Warner Bros. adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy.  Hattie was the only one of those stars who’d won an Oscar by that time.  You wouldn’t know it from either her billing or the size of her role.  She was given lines like “Yes’m, I’ll get da door.”  The role is beneath her talents.  But it was employment.  In Disney’s “Song of the South,” the 1946 musical that gave us the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” Hattie McDaniel’s charisma and first-rate screen technique pop when she appears.  As in 1936’s “Show Boat,” she sings.  Her number is one of the highlights of the film.  She plays the cook in a plantation kitchen.  She never got another role as sizable as the one in “Gone with the Wind.” and Hollywood didn’t go out of its way to utilize her talents so that she could possibly be a contender for another Oscar.

About Disney’s “Song of the South” — that movie was the first one to bring an Oscar to a black actor.  The first black actor to win a competitive Oscar was Sidney Poitier for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.”

Disney’s “Song of the South” brought actor James Baskett an honorary Oscar for his performance as Uncle Remus, the plantation handyman and “Brer Rabbit” storyteller.  We know that Uncle Remus didn’t get that plantation job because he posted a resumé on LinkedIn.  He was a slave.  That’s not said in the movie.  But we know.  A slave singing with cartoon bluebirds.

The next African American Oscar nominee came ten years after Hattie’s Oscar winning performance.  Broadway and recording star Ethel Waters went dramatic in 1949’s “Pinky,” a race drama.  As with “Gone with the Wind,” the white leading lady (Jeanne Crain) was an Oscar nominee for Best Actress and the black woman was in the Best Supporting Actress category.  Jeanne Crain starred as “Pinky,” a beautiful black woman so light-skinned that she’s passed for white.  Drama ensues.  Pinky passed for white up North while getting a degree to be a nurse.  She returns to the South to visit her poor illiterate laundress grandmother, played by Ethel Waters.

Come the late 1950s, Sidney Poitier was the first black man get to an Oscar nomination.  His second one brought him the Hollywood gold.  Dorothy Dandridge made history in one of the hottest Best Actress Oscar races in Hollywood history.  Judy Garland, the favorite, was nominated for “A Star is Born.”  Grace Kelly was nominated for “The Country Girl.”  Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for the musical drama, “Carmen Jones.”  She was the first black woman ever to be nominated in that category.  Garland should have won.  If not Judy, the Oscar should have gone to Dorothy Dandridge for her blazing, vivid, glamorous work as “Carmen Jones.” But the Oscar went to Grace Kelly.  Dandridge, a Hollywood veteran by that time, could sing.

But “Carmen Jones” was a modern “urban” take on Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” so she was operatically dubbed in the singing department.  Rent that film and see how gorgeous and talented she was.  Then keep in mind that Dorothy Dandridge didn’t have another Hollywood assignment for five years.  Why?  Because there were no opportunities for a black leading lady in Hollywood.  Even though she had a history-making Best Actress Oscar nomination to her credit.

Through the years, African American men have taken gold in the Best Supporting Actor category — actors like Lou Gossett for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Denzel Washington for GLORY, Cuba Gooding Jr for “Jerry Maguire,” and Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby.”

African American men have distinguished themselves in the Best Actor category too.  After Poitier, Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for “Training Day.” Forrest Whitaker won for “The Last King of Scotland” and Jamie Foxx took gold for “Ray.”  With “Fences,” Denzel Washington is now the most Oscar-nominated black actor in Hollywood history.  “Fences” marks his 7th.

Hollywood seems to have a tendency to slide black women into the Best Supporting Actress category.  There have been more nominated in that category than in the Best Actress category.  After Dorothy Dandridge…  Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, little Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), Gabby Sidibe (“Precious”) and Halle Berry made it in the Best Actress Oscar nomination category.  For 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” Halle Berry was the first black woman — and is still the only black woman — to win the Best Actress Academy Award.

After Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters….Juanita Moore (“Imitation of Life”), Beah Richards (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery (“The Color Purple”), Marianne-Jean Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”), Viola Davis (“Doubt”), Alfre Woodard, Ruby Dee, Taraji P. Henson, Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique (winner for “Precious”), Jennifer Hudson (winner for “Dream Girls”) and Octavia Spencer (winner for “The Help”) were in Oscar’s Best Supporting Actress category.  Following Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg was the first black woman in 50 years to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  She won for 1990’s “Ghost.”

That could be why there was the campaign to get Viola Davis a “Fences” Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.  She’s the lead female character in the film.  She should be in the Best Actress race.  But look at Hollywood history.  That was a shrewd campaign.  Best Actress Oscar races like the one for 1972 have been rare.  For 1972, Diana Ross was nominated for “Lady Sings the Blues” and Cicely Tyson was nominated for “Sounder.”  Two black women in the same Best Actress Oscar race.  Liza Minnelli won for “Cabaret.”  I can’t recall when two black women have been up for the Best Actress Oscar since the nominations for 1972.  Before “Fences” opened, there was Best Actress Oscar buzz for Ruth Negga of “Loving.”  She is now a Best Actress Oscar nominee.

Viola Davis is a Best Supporting Actress nominee for “Fences.”  The nomination puts her in Hollywood history books.  Think about this in regards to opportunities for black actresses:  For 20 years, Whoopi Goldberg was the only black actress who had more than one Oscar nomination to her credit.  She had a Best Actress nomination for “The Color Purple.” She won Best Supporting Actress for 1990’s “Ghost.” Viola Davis was in the Best Supporting Actress category for DOUBT.  Her Best Actress nomination for 2011’s “The Help” tied her with Whoopi in the number of Oscar nominations.  She, Whoopi and several other of those black actresses I mentioned turned to TV for employment because Hollywood had no other script opportunities after they received an Oscar nomination.

“Fences” (2016)
Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Viola Davis as Rose Maxson, Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson


With her Oscar nomination for “Fences,”  Viola Davis is now the most Oscar-nominated black actress in Oscar history.  She is in her early 50s, a film and Broadway veteran, and she has 3 Oscar nominations.  Jennifer Lawrence is in her 20s and she has 4.  Julia Roberts has 4.  Nicole Kidman has 4.  Amy Adams has 5.  Cate Blanchett has 7. Meryl Streep made Hollywood history with her current Best Actress Oscar nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  Meryl Streep got her 20th Oscar nomination.

And Viola Davis made Hollywood history headlines as now being the most Oscar-nominated black actress of all Academy Awards time — and she got her 3rd Oscar nomination. I let out a big cheer when I heard her name announced.  “Viola did it! made history!” I called out.  She also made history in that she was directed in “Fences” by the most Oscar-nominated black actor in Hollywood history, her co-star Denzel Washington.  He directed her previously in the 2002 drama, “Antwone Fisher.” These are facts the network entertainment contributors overlooked on “Good Morning America” minutes after the Oscar nominations were announced live and exclusively on ABC during “Good Morning America.” This was odd because one of ABC’s biggest prime time hit shows is “How to Get Away With Murder.”  — starring Viola Davis.

REUTERS/Fred Prouser


Three of the Best Picture nominees spotlight and reflect the Black Experience in America:  “Fences,” “Moonlight” (which brings us a black and gay experience) and “Hidden Figures.”

Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is now tied with Whoopi Goldberg at two Oscar nominations.  Octavia Spencer earned her 2nd Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination thanks to her terrific performance in one of my favorite films of 2016 “Hidden Figures.”  It’s the true story of the three brainy African American women at NASA in the early 1960s who contributed to help launch astronaut John Glenn into space.  Their contributions were vital and significant.  On “Good Morning America,” entertainment contributor Lara Spencer praised the movie and added, “Why didn’t we know about this story before?”  The reason why we didn’t is the very reason why we have Black History Month.  Taraji P. Henson plays mathematician/physicist Katherine Johnson.  Ms. Johnson is now 98.  She received a Presidential Medal of Freedom two years ago from President Obama.

“Hidden Figures” shows how we all benefit when the playing field becomes level.  It wasn’t at the beginning of the story.  The Oscar history for black performers — especially black women — shows that the playing field needs to become more level.  There needs to be inclusion and equal opportunity.  Brava to Viola Davis for making Hollywood history, Women’s History and Black History.

The 89th Annual Academy Awards air on ABC on Sunday, February 26th. See the full list of nominations here.

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