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African American Academy Award winners that you might not know

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The Academy Awards is absolutely one of the most famous and most anticipated awards ceremonies in the film industry. Everyone hears about them. Most people will hear about the winners. Many will see the red carpet dresses. And no one can avoid hearing the gossip. It’s all about the acting awards.

But movie making is more than the acting performances. Have you ever stayed after the movie and watched the credits? The list of actors is finished within minutes. Yet the lists and names continue. These are the technical and creative people. The people who give the words to the actors and the story to the movie, the people who make the actors and the movie look good and sound good. These are the people who develop the story into a movie, who piece together all the bits of filming into a coherent movie, and film the action and emotion with the most skill. The lists of these people seem endless.

They are not pictured on the red carpet or shown on the cover of entertainment magazines in their designer dresses or tuxedos. They are not household names nor do they have thousands of Twitter followers. They do not have thousands of Facebook friends.

But their work is seen and felt by audiences around the world. The audience just does not know it. African Americans are among some of the most active, talented, and skilled members of this important group. They are the unsung heroes…until today.

T.J. Martin
T.J. Martin en.wikipedia.org

T.J. Martin

Academy Award: Best Documentary Feature (2012)
Movie: Undefeated
Achievement: First African American to win an Oscar in this category and the First African American director to win in the Documentary Feature category!

Not to be confused with the documentary about Sarah Palin, Martin’s documentary called Undefeated follows the story of a Memphis-based high school football team. The Manassas Tigers struggle to have a winning season after suffering numerous losses.  With the help of coach Bill Courtney, the team grows into a group focused on athletics and sports.  The Washington Post called it a “beautifully told story.”

TJ Martin directed and edited the film for which he received the Best Documentary Feature. Although it was not widely distributed, it is an uplifting and inspirational true story about the transformation of a group of young men.  Mr. Martin is the first African American to win an Oscar in the Best Documentary category and he is the first African American Director to win for a documentary feature.

An excellent film and a great director and slogan stating, “Character will be revealed.”

Willie D. Burton
Willie D. Burton plazanoir.com

Willie D. Burton

Academy Award: Sound Mixing (1988)
Movie: Bird
Achievement: First African American to win in this category!

How many people recognize this category?  Not many. But the work in this often-overlooked technical category can make a movie great or mediocre.  Willie Burton made them great! He also made Dreamgirls great for which he won another Best Sound Mixing Oscar in 2006. 

Willie Burton was born and raised in Alabama.  He developed an interest in music and mixing while living near a radio station. In high school, he took jobs repairing radios and televisions.  He left Alabama because opportunities were limited for African Americans in the Deep South and moved to Los Angeles were he took classes at Compton college in sound mixing.  His career in sound mixing has spanned more than four decades and he has been nominated for seven Oscars in this category (winning twice), nominated for two BAFTAs (winning once for War Games), and nominated for one Emmy Award for Sound Mixing (Roots).

This hard-working, inspirational, and highly talented man has been working behind the scenes for more than 40 years. His story would make a great film.

Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes en.wikipedia.org

Isaac Hayes

Academy Award: Best Original Song (1972)
Song: Theme from Shaft
Achievement: First African American to win any non-acting award

Yes, Isaac Hayes is a household name as well he should be!  Isaac Hayes had been writing and producing songs for most of his adult life.  He has produced so many hit songs (example: Soul Man) that they are often just remembered and enjoyed without any attribution to him because they are an integral part of the American music genre. Mr. Hayes also acted in many films such as I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.  But his music and deep beyond-baritone voice is his signature. He has also won numerous Grammy awards.

Isaac Hayes has left another legacy that is virtually unknown: He was appointed Chief of the Ada region of Ghana in 1992 for his excellent and extensive humanitarian work as well as financial assistance to the region. 

Hayes was the first African American to receive an Oscar for the Best Original Song (Theme from Shaft) and an Oscar in any non-acting category.  This multi-talented and principled man passed away in 2008 and is missed by family and worldwide fans alike.

Geoffrey Fletcher
Geoffrey Fletcher blackfilm.com

Geoffrey Fletcher

Academy Award: Best Adapted Screenplay (2009)
Movie: Precious
Achievement: First African American to win Best Adapted Screenplay and first African American to win an Oscar in writing!

Variety Magazine lists Geoffrey Fletcher as one of the top ten screenwriters to watch!  This Harvard-educated writer has won numerous awards—including Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards in 2010—to add to his repertoire.

Fletcher is a screenwriter, film director, and adjunct professor at Columbia University. He worked in many temporary staff positions as he wrote and produced his films. In 2006, Director Lee Daniels viewed Fletcher’s first film, Magic Markers, and asked him to adapt the book, Push, for the big screen. This adaptation became the highly acclaimed movie, Precious.  Professor Fletcher is not only the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but also the first African American to win an Academy Award for writing!

This young screenwriter, filmmaker, and professor deserves our respect and acclaim. What a great role model for all writers with a dream!

Roger Ross Williams
Roger Ross Williams eventbrite.com

Roger Ross Williams

Academy Award: Best Documentary Short Subject (2009)
Movie: Music by Prudence
Achievement: First African American to win in this category!

This is not one of the most watched or anticipated categories at the Academy Awards, but that is a mistake. The documentary “shorts” are some of the most innovative and interesting films produced during any given year. And Music by Prudence was no exception.  This documentary followed the life of a young Zimbabwean singer-songwriter named Prudence Mabhena, who was born severely disabled but dreamed of being a musician. She and six other young disabled musicians ultimately form a band and overcome the stereotypes and discrimination of the villagers.  It is an inspiring story of triumph and strength that moved audiences and reshaped the minds of many people.

Roger Ross Williams is the one who saw Prudence’s life and strength and had the vision to bring her story to the big screen.  He is a member of a Gullah family and has lived and worked in New York for more than 25 years for various news stations and television channels.  He is not only the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Story but the first African American to win any Oscar for producing and directing a film (short or feature).

Keep watching and honoring this filmmaker; he has the vision and courage to tell the stories that need to be told!

Unsung Heroes of the Oscars!
Unsung Heroes of the Oscars! www.2citypaper.com

Unsung Heroes of the Oscars!

Yes, the actors and actresses at the Academy Awards are talented and glamorous. But these directors, writers, editors, and sound mixers are also stars on the set.  Their behind-the-scenes talent and skill show dedication and vision. Keep watching and listening—their work shines brighter than any Oscar trophy!

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