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"Their Stars still shined as bright as anyone else's"
At the dawn of the 21st century in 2001, Halle Berry received an Academy Award as the best actress in "Monster's Ball." She was the first Black woman to win the award as best actress since the Academy of Motion Pictures had started awards presentation in 1927. Black women have been woefully absent from the academy class for approximately 82 years.
In 2007, Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar in the best supporting actress category for "Dreamgirls." It was her first film on the big screen (movies) after losing the winning spot on "American Idol" on the small screen (television).
The following year, Ruby Dee, the 83-year old matriarch and veteran of Broadway, television and movies was nominated for--but did not receive--the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in "American Gangster." Though she did not win the Oscar, she has always been a winner (along with her late husband, Ossie Davis), for having mentored scores of actors and actresses and being a role model for the current generation of thespians. Her activities on and off the screen have made her an idol to many.
Taraji P. Henson was nominated for best supporting actress in 2009 for her role in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Then back in 2002, Queen Latifah received the Oscar nomination as the best supporting actress in "Chicago." (The same time that Sidney Poitier received an honorary Academy Award in recognition of his body of work and for representing the movie industry with dignity, style and intelligence).
When Hattie McDaniel won the academy award for her best supporting role in "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, she was not afforded the same "Oscar treatment" that her White counterparts had received or were accustomed to, but nevertheless, she did possess the talent that lent itself to her winning the award. At that time in Hollywood history, Black talent was not recognized or even counted. It wasn't until 1963 that another Black person won an Academy Award despite the enormous pool of Black talent that existed. Promoting Black talent was not socially acceptable or encouraged.
Prior to McDaniel's win, the Academy of Motion Pictures was already imbued with--and had contracted--society's disease: racism and discrimination. It was customary to ignore/exclude some of the great Black talent of the time--male and female. McDaniel's Academy Award for best supporting role had just opened a crack in the Hollywood strata where Blacks had been forbidden to tread.
Black women did not fare any better in the forties. There were a few more Black faces on the screen but there were no awards except an honorary one. Ethel Waters was nominated for "Pinky" in 1949 but there was an excellent caliber of actresses, who were up and coming during that period and they were summarily ignored, including Lena Horne, Butterfly McQueen, Lillian Randolph, Josephine Baker and Nina Mae McKinney. They moved with grace into the fifties, but Hollywood did not "see" them or their talent. It was even more expedient and acceptable for the movie industry to "darken" White actors rather than use real Blacks and/or "black-skinned" performers.
Nominations increased in the fifties and some memorable roles introduced a new wave of Black actresses. Among the nomination nods were Dorothy Dandridge for "Carmen Jones," and Juanita Moore for "Imitation of Life." But there was considerable non-recognition of Black actresses in prominent roles, unjustly ignored and totally disenfranchised by the Academy of Motion Pictures--Ruby Dee, Della Reese, Eartha Kitt and others.
Things began to light up in 1963 when Poitier won an Academy Award for best actor in "Lilies of the Field;" Hollywood really made history that evening. (It had been 36 years since the awards were first given out and 24 since McDaniel had won. It was also the first time a Black person had won an Oscar for being best actor). But that was short-lived; it came and it went. There was still no female counterpart to share in his success, which seemed to signal the end rather than the beginning. During the entire decade, there was only one other nomination: Beah Richards in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in 1967.
The seventies started with Diana Ross being nominated in the best actress category for her first starring role in Berry Gordy's "Lady Sings the Blues" in 1972. The same year, Cicely Tyson also got a nomination for best actress in "Sounder." In 1974, Diahann Carroll was nominated for her role in "Claudine" but there were no winners in neither in the best actress nor the best supporting categories for the decade except Irene Cara who won for best song in "Flashdance."
In the eighties, Alfre Woodard was nominated as best supporting actress in "Cross Creek;" so too did Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery for "The Color Purple." Whoopi Goldberg was nominated in the best actress category for the "The Color Purple."
In 1990, Whoopi Goldberg won for best supporting role in "Ghost" (here it must be noted, that this was the first Academy Award received by a Black woman in 51 years, since McDaniel had won in 1939). Angela Bassett was nominated in 1993 for "What's Love Got to Do With It." The 20th century closed without any further Oscar movements other than those two.
The road to the Academy Awards has improved somewhat since 1927/1928, but it is still rocky for Black actresses (and actors) whose body of artistic achievements to the world often go un-rewarded and ignored. Author Ralph Ellison, whose book, 'the Invisible Man', is a literary classic, stated it best: "Movies are not about Blacks but what Whites think about Blacks." There have also been instances where Black Academy Award winners have played "second-banana" to White actors who had never won an Academy Award. The only true measure of Black talents then may be in having a Black Academy Award presentation.