Film & Television

The Unbearable Whiteness of the Oscars

At last month’s Golden Globes, three Black actresses — Angela Bassett, Quinta Brunson, and Zendaya — walked away with top honors. At next month’s Academy Awards, that can’t possibly happen, because only one Black actress is nominated. 

Now, before you point out that a comparison between the two award shows isn’t apples-to-apples — the Golden Globes include television as well as movies, and break each into multiple categories by genre — if we look at this year’s Oscar nominations and, more importantly, at its history of diversity (or non-diversity), a disturbing pattern emerges.

The first Black actress to be nominated was Hattie McDaniel for her role as the irascible Mammy in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel won, beating white costar Olivia de Havilland, although it took her some time to get to the stage from her seat in the back (and separate from white cast members). “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future,” she told the supportive crowd. “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”

One might think that McDaniel’s historic win, professionalism, and grace would have created a greater number of award-worthy opportunities for Black actresses. However, it took more than half a century for the next Black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, to earn an Oscar for her virtuosic turn as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. And, it was another 16 years before another Black actress won in the category: Jennifer Hudson as Effie in Dreamgirls.

To date, only nine Black women have won Best Supporting Actress: McDaniel (1939); Goldberg (1991); Hudson (2007); Mo’Nique for Precious (2010); Octavia Spencer for The Help (2012); Lupito Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave (2014); Viola Davis for Fences (2017); Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk (2019); and Ariana DeBose for West Side Story (2022). 

And, only one Black woman has ever won Best Actress in a Leading Role: Halle Berry in 2002 for Monster’s Ball.

Sometimes one award does more harm than none. The problem with tokenism is that it dilutes arguments against bias. After Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for Hurt Locker in 2010, critics could no longer argue that there had never been an Oscar given to a female director. Since then, you can practically count on one hand how many women have been nominated (seven) and comfortably do so for women who have won (two, Chloé Zhao for Nomadland (2020), and Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog (2021)). No Black men have ever won Best Director. And, no Black women directors have been nominated at all.

This year, some predicted that Gina Prince-Bythewood  would be recognized for The Woman King. However, when nominations were announced on January 23rd, the roster was all-male and all-white. Coupled with that disappointment was the fact that Davis, the film’s star, wasn’t nominated for her extraordinary performance either.

Prince-Bythewood published a compelling op-ed in the Hollywood Reporter. “This awards season was an eye-opener,” she wrote, pointing out that The Woman King received stellar reviews and will earn more than $100 million in box office. “So, our film made money and clearly had a cultural impact, which is what we all hoped for.”

“But, the Academy made a very loud statement, and for me to stay quiet is to accept that statement. So, I agreed to speak up, on behalf of Black women whose work has been dismissed in the past, is dismissed now like Alice Diop and Saint Omer, Chinonye Chukwu and Till — and for those who haven’t even stepped on a set yet …

“The Woman King wasn’t snubbed. A snub is if it missed out on a category or two. The film was not nominated for one single craft. Not one single extraordinary performance was recognized. And when has that happened for a successful film that hit all the so-called markers? It’s not a snub. It’s a reflection of where the Academy stands and the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition. And, sadly, this is not just an issue in Hollywood but in every industry. I’m going to use a Dr. King quote because it is so apropos, in that he spoke on the ‘lie of [our] inferiority accepted as truth in the society dominating us.’…

“So, the question we need to ask is, ‘Why is it so hard to relate to the work of your Black peers?’ What is this inability of Academy voters to see Black women, and their humanity, and their heroism, as relatable to themselves?”

Prince-Bythewood wrote about Davis’s performance, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award, BAFTA, and SAG Award, but not included for Oscar consideration. And she spoke up for another potential, but snubbed, lead actress nominee, Till’s Danielle Deadwyler. Both performances were courageous and heartbreaking. Both films were widely acclaimed and, by any award show metric, successful. Yet neither actress was recognized.

So, where does that leave Black actresses in 2023? 

Bassett is the only one nominated. It’s her second nomination; her role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It earned a nod for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1994. And, her inclusion in the best Supporting Actress competition this year for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is being hailed as historic. But, not because of the color of her skin. It marks the first time a Marvel Studios film has earned an acting nomination. 

The Academy Awards are celebrating their 95th year. Some simple math tells us that, historically, there have been about 475 Best Actress nominees, 475 Best Supporting Actress nominees, and 190 winners combined. (I’m not including the Academy’s Juvenile Award, which went to such child stars as Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.) The percentage of Black performers who have won — or even been nominated — is disheartening.

There’s been some debate this year about which white actress “stole” her nomination from Davis or Deadwyler. (Even Oscars’ critics seem to feel that Michelle Yeoh deserves to be on the list for Everything Everywhere All at Once.) But, that level of granular analysis gets in the way of the bigger problem. Ninety-five years of Oscars history demonstrate that, despite any slow progress being made or any isolated nominations, Hollywood still discounts the contributions of Black women.

The Academy — and Hollywood — need to do better.


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