The Academy Awards is one of the most popular film awards in the world. It is a time to recognize and honor the best cinematic performances and technical works during the year. Of course, there are many factors (beyond acting or technical ability) that affect the determination of who is nominated and who actually goes home with an award.
If life imitates art, then one can say that the Academy Awards represents important events or issues in the United States and how American society is evolving. Race and racial issues have been major themes shown in movies and addressed by the Academy in the awards its gives in any given year.
This can be seen in the Oscars that were awarded in the 85 years that the Academy Awards has existed. The history is quite exciting and revealing. Take a look at the African Americans who have been graced by an award from the Academy. They made history—in the movies and in real life!
Achievement: First African Americans to win the Best Actor Oscar
Movie: Lilies of the Fields (1963)
No surprise here! Sidney Poitier is one of the best actors (of any ethnicity) to ever grace the big screen. He set the stage for many of today’s African American actors. There are so many wonderful movies that he made for which he did not receive an Oscar like the groundbreaking movie, Guess who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) and the trailblazing film, In the Heat of the Night (1967). Yet his films have left a lasting impression on audiences. Who will ever forget when Poitier stood up to Rod Steiger to respond, “They call me Mr. Tibbs?!”
He also wrote an autobiography called The Measure of a Man that should be required reading for African American youth of both genders.
Achievement: First African American to win an Oscar.
Movie: Gone with the Wind (1939). She won Best Supporting Actress
Hattie McDaniel is not a household name today. But, in her time, she was quite famous and respected. Ms. McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actor Award in 1940, which was the first Oscar ever awarded to an African American. Her acceptance speech brought tears to the eyes of thousands. Note: Ms. McDaniel was required to sit in a segregated table (away from her white colleagues) at the Academy Awards ceremony.
Ms. McDaniel actually has earned two stars on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles; one for her work in movies and another for her work in radio. She appeared in more than 300 movies. Unfortunately, she died of breast cancer at the age of 57. Her dying wish was to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd. but this was not allowed because it was a segregated cemetery, reserved only for whites. She also bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University. The historically Black university received the Oscar but it has since disappeared.
Ms. McDaniel was a classy, talented, and bold woman who made movie history and uplifted the African American community.
Achievement: Most nominations for an African American (4 Best Actor and 2 Best Supporting Actor)
Movies: Best Actor: Malcolm X (1992), The Hurricane (1999), Training Day(Won, 2001), and Flight (2012): Best Supporting Actor: Cry Freedom (1987) and Glory (Won, 1989)
Denzel Washington has set the standard for great and principled roles for African Americans. He does not always play a “good guy” or a great man. But the people that he portrays are real and authentic. From a crooked cop and alcoholic pilot to Hurricane and Malcolm X, Denzel Washington has a way to make people think, feel, and experience life as no one else can. The only surprise is that he has not won more Oscars!
Achievement: First African American woman to win Best Actress Oscar
Movie: Monster’s Ball (2001)
Halle Berry is another household name. Her repertoire is diverse and controversial. While her performance in Monster’s Ball was powerful, one of her best and most historically meaningful roles was her portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge (1991), which she also co-wrote and executive produced.
Ms. Berry is an excellent actress who demands and receives the professional respect that she deserves. And she is one actress who is not afraid of activism, joining both political and environmental causes.
Achievement: First film to feature African American nominees in both Best Actor (Paul Winfield) and Best Actress (Cicely Tyson) roles
Of course, this is not an actor or actress, but is meaningful in its own way. Sounder was a movie about a family of African American sharecroppers who face racism and poverty. The family dog was named Sounder who was much beloved by the family and meets a tragic ending. This movie tells an important story of an African American family that is resilient, loving, and committed to each other in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.
But this film was also important because of its incredible performances by Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. The younger cast members (like Kevin Hooks) also make memorable appearances. More memorable still is that the Academy was bold enough to nominate two African Americans for this film!
This movie was based on the book, Sounder, which presents a more graphic portrayal of the lives of African American sharecroppers. The book has much more violence, racist behavior, and a more emotional ending than the book. It is a great read, but be prepared for many emotions.
African Americans at the Oscars!
The Academy is showing its ability to grow and evolve like American society. Its inclusion and recognition of the contributions by African Americans, Latinos, and others is a big leap in the right direction. And it is taking acting and filmmaking to greater heights.
The actors are important but the technical people are also finally getting the recognition that they deserve. And African Americans are also making a strong presence on the technical side!