Guest Author - Amber Grey
From Hattie McDaniel's portrayal of "Mammy" to Denzel Washington's win for "Training Day", the history of African American actors in Oscar history is fascinating. As a result, the following films are just a few notables that are significant to the African American culture and films.
1. "Gone With The Wind" (1939) Actress Hattie McDaniel won for her portrayal as "Mamie" - Scarlett O'Hara's tough but loveable servant. In her humble acceptance speech, McDaniel was quoted, "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. Although her win was a giant step forward, McDaniel's night at the Oscars must have felt like the industry was taking two steps backward when after she won, the actress was seated at a segregated table, apart from the rest of her colleagues. Her role as "Mamie" and the fact that most of her career was playing a servant, has been examined in the evolution of African Americans and the limited roles they were offered at one time. Since her win, three actresses have won the statuette including Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson and Mo'Nique. Most recently, when actress/comedian Mo'Nique won for her role in "Precious" (2009) she wore gardenias in honor of McDaniel.
2. "Lillies of the Field" (1963). After being nominated for his role in "The Defiant Ones" (1958), Sydney Poitier was the first African American actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor for "Lillies of the Field" (1963). In this film, Poitier portrayed Homer Smith, a handyman who builds a chapel for a group of East German nuns. Although his career has been criticized for being typecast in roles that have been called "faultless" and "sexless" in order to satisfy audiences. It was not until 39 years later, that Denzel Washington was the second African American actor to take him the Oscar for his role in "Training Day" (2001). Washington portrayed "Alonzo", a corrupt cop, which fortunately proved that the diversity of roles given to African American actors improved.
3. "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982). Louis Gossett Jr's win for "Best Supporting Actor" ended the 19-year gap for African American actors in Oscar history. He was not only the first to win for a supporting role, but also the second African American man to win an Oscar for acting and their African American actor to win overall in the Academy History. Following Gossett, Jr. was Denzel Washington for "Glory" (1989), which was his first Oscar win for a supporting role. As well as one of the more memorable Oscar acceptances, a 29-year old Cuba Gooding Jr. for "Jerry Maguire" (1996). Gooding Jr is also the youngest African American to win an Academy Award.
4. "Carmen Jones" (1954). Actress/singer Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role category. Although she did not win, it was another milestone in the history of the film industry. In the following years, other actresses such as Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Whoopi Goldberg and Angela Bassett, would follow her lead. All were justly nominated for their roles, but did not win. Forty-seven years after Dandridge's nomination, Halle Berry was the first to win for her portrayal of "Leticia Msugrove" in "Monster's Ball" (2001).
While it has taken many years for the Academy to recognize African Americans in certain categories such as acting, there still remains one of the biggest categories of all, "Best Director." While a few African Amercians have been nominated for the category, it has yet to be claimed - hopefully in the near future, it will be.