Wanted: Oscar-Worthy Lead Roles for Black Women

Best Actress, usually an all-white affair, needs more splashes of color.

Tis the season again.

Every year-end when Oscar-caliber movies start rolling out with weekly regularity, we start hearing a familiar song. The chorus, though, isn’t nearly as catchy as “Jingle Bells.”

Nor is it particularly jolly. The lyrics bemoan the paucity of meaty film roles for women, especially those over a certain age (35ish). In interviews and during acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, actresses sing along to thunderous applause.

The lyrics may be spot on, but those singing loudest often leave out an important refrain. Somehow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always manages to come up with five Best Actress Oscar nominees — and somehow the contenders are almost always all white.

If white actresses are nonetheless scrambling for substantial film roles, where does that leave black actresses — or other actresses of color? From the beginning, Hollywood has had woman trouble and issues with race. Although things have improved somewhat for black and female talent over the decades, when it comes to Hollywood’s racial and gender divide, actresses of color still bear the brunt of discrimination.

Every so often a black performer sneaks into the Best Actress race (even more rare: a Latina nominee … and we haven’t had an Asian finalist since Merle Oberon in 1936). And considering that in all the ceremonies from 1976 to 2001, just two black women made the shortlist (Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple and Angela Bassett for What’s Love Got to Do with It, only the fifth and sixth black Best Actress nominees), the Academy has been doing a better job this century (five black Best Actress contenders) than it did in the last one.

Even with the modest strides, Halle Berry remains the only black actress ever to win an Oscar for a leading role (Monster’s Ball, in 2002). We have to go all the way back to 1973 to find two black female leads nominated in the same year (Cicely Tyson for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues).

While Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Will Smith each have been nominated more than once for a leading role, a black woman has yet to score a second Best Actress nomination.

This year, the 80th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, the film that made Hattie McDaniel the first black woman to win an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress), an unusually high number of black women could conceivably enter the 2020 Best Actress fray: four. There’s 12 Years a Slave’s Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o for the thriller Us, previous Best Supporting Actress nominee Alfre Woodard for the death-row drama Clemency, Cynthia Erivo for the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, and Jodie Turner-Smith for the fugitive-lovers-on-the-run tale Queen & Slim.

Us aside, race is an overt and towering presence in each movie, as it has been for nearly every film featuring a black female Oscar nominee over the last 80 years.

Yet, any buzz they’ve received has been drowned out by the loud roar over Renee Zellweger in Judy, Charlize Theron in Bombshell, and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. Speaking of the latter, Netflix’s acclaimed drama about a marriage on the rocks already has deafening Oscar buzz for Johansson, Adam Driver, and Laura Dern. Why don’t they write movies like that for black actresses … ever?

Yep, it’s the same old song — again.

We shall overcome … just not yet

After 2016’s shameful Oscars blackout and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite boycott over the lack of black nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did a complete 180 in 2017 by embracing color in an unprecedented way. A record six black performers were nominated that year, with three of them competing in the Best Supporting Actress category alone.

Meanwhile, three of the nine Best Picture nominees (Fences, Hidden Figures, and the eventual winner, Moonlight) featured predominantly black actors in the main cast. That was a first. Just three years earlier, Lee Daniels’ well-received The Butler had been shut out of the Oscar nominations, presumably (depending on whom you ask) because it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as the eventual Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Two simultaneous race-themed, black-led Oscar contenders told from a black perspective, seemed virtually unthinkable then.

Had black thespians actually overcome in 2017? Despite the obvious progress, closer inspection of the nominees revealed a troubling and ongoing pattern. When it comes to black performers and the Oscars, the Academy’s choices continue to be maddeningly narrow.

Every black acting nominee was cited for a movie with predominantly black actors in the central roles (so-called “black” movies) or one with racism at its center (Loving). Two black performers, eventual Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali and non-nominee Janelle Monae, appeared in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures.

I suppose we should be thankful that none of the black Oscar contenders that year were nominated for playing slaves. Of course, if an old rape accusation hadn’t come back to haunt and cancel The Birth of a Nation auteur Nate Parker, that certainly would not have been the case.

I remembered wishing that just one black actor or actress had been nominated for a role she or he could have won over, say, Michelle Williams or Casey Affleck, who, perhaps tellingly, remained a clear Best Actor frontrunner for Manchester by the Sea, despite sexual harassment allegations against him by two women who worked on his 2010 directorial effort I’m Still Here. (He would go on to win the gong.)

Who’s to blame?

The problem, however, wasn’t really with the Academy. Considering the options they were given, the voters did remarkably well. I had to commend them for pulling off one of the most diverse line-ups in the history of Oscar nominations.

The problem was with Hollywood’s power players and their delusions of white supremacy when it came to storytelling and casting. More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, the movies still had segregation issues. They still do.

Studios and casting directors continue to overlook actors of color for non-race-specific movie roles. When three black actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae) headlined the box-office hit and Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, it was easy to assume that the demands of historical accuracy had forced the hands of the filmmakers, who probably would have preferred a summit of white big-name actresses (like Bombshell’s Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie).

In some ways, 2017 was a step backwards from 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took the lead acting Oscars for roles that, with some story tweaks, could have been played by Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. At the 2019 Oscars, Regina King and Mahershala Ali won for their respective supporting roles in If Beale Street Could Talk and Green Book. Those films, the only ones to feature nominated black actors, were all about race and racism, like so many previous films with black nominees.

At least, the Best Supporting Actress category has been increasingly open to black talent this century. Since 2000, 15 of the nominee slots have been filled by black actresses (five more than the total number in the previous seven decades), and six of them have won (compared to two pre-2000).

Despite the asterisk hovering over my enthusiasm in 2017, I did consider the racial diversity of that year’s Oscar nominees to be a positive step. On Oscar night, I was cheering as loudly as everyone else when Viola Davis picked up her Best Supporting Actress prize for Fences.

But I’m still hoping that a white Hollywood director will have the good sense to cast her in a leading movie role as dynamic and un-race-specific as her Emmy-winning one on How to Get Away with Murder. Annalise Keating is one of the most complex characters ever to hit TV screens, and she easily could have been played by Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore.

They wouldn’t even have been slumming. TV is no longer viewed as being on a lower Hollywood rung than movies. I like to think that’s partly because, unlike films, TV is finally getting diversity right.

May movies, and by extension, the Oscars, follow television’s lead and stop treating black actresses and other actresses of color like second-class talent. We don’t want to sing that song anymore.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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