Black Women and the Oscars Have a Storied History

Black women have contributed to the ceremony in more ways than acting. It’s time to give us our flowers (and our awards).

Photo By Getty Images

It’s well-known that Halle Berry is the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. It’s one of the few ways in which a Black woman has been visibly recognized during the ceremony. The Ohio native achieved this “milestone” for her role as Leticia Musgrove, a woman whose life as a mother and wife is filled with tragedy, 19 years ago at the 74th Academy Awards. And bets are that another Black actress will finally occupy that space with Berry.

For this year’s 93rd Academy Awards, that same category boasts two Black women, The United States vs. Billie Holiday’s Andra Day and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Viola Davis, as contenders for the second time ever in Oscar history. The very first time two Black women were nominated in this category occurred almost 50 years ago in 1973 with Cicely Tyson starring as a mother and wife in Sounder, and Diana Ross for also playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues at the 45th Academy Awards ceremony. Of course, Dorothy Dandridge was the very first Black woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress back in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards. Yet, like our talents, our contributions are not acknowledged enough.

Speaking with Variety back in September about her directorial debut for Bruised, a film about a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter where she is also the star, Berry revealed how disappointed she was that her “breakthrough” was not that. “It’s one of my biggest heartbreaks,” she admitted. “The morning after, I thought, ‘Wow, I was chosen to open a door.’ And then, to have no one … I question, ‘Was that an important moment, or was it just an important moment for me?’ I wanted to believe it was so much bigger than me. It felt so much bigger than me, mainly because I knew others should have been there before me and they weren’t.”

Our talents and our contributions are not acknowledged enough.

Whoopi Goldberg opens the show for her 4th time as host during the 74th Academy Awards (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Black women have fared better in the Best Supporting Actress category. Since Whoopi Goldberg became the second Black woman to win back in 1991, more than 50 years after Hattie McDaniel’s win (the first Academy Award win for any Black actor or any actor of color for that matter), in 1940, six Black women have won, including Regina King in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk. McDaniel is rarely acknowledged as a trailblazer in general discussions of diversity and inclusion.

Black women’s strides extend beyond acting. Equally important, that same year King nabbed her Oscar, Black Panther’s Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler each became the first Black and women of color winners ever for costume and production design respectively, bringing attention to the other roles Black women can and do play in film at large. In that regard, one of the biggest barrier breakers of this year is in hair, with Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson becoming the first Black women to receive a nomination for their work on Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Neal, a Drama Desk Award winner for hair and wigs in the 2016 Broadway revival of the pioneering 1921 Black musical Shuffle Along, served as the film’s department head for hair, a position still rare for a Black woman even on Black films, while Wilson has been Davis’s personal hairstylist since 2008. Because makeup and hair are considered a team effort for the Oscars, the two women share the nomination with Sergio Lopez-Rivera, who is also Davis’s personal makeup artist.

Speaking with Christopher A. Daniel for Vogue, Neal could not contain her optimism about the role people of color will play in the industry’s future. “The possibilities are endless, and this nomination proves that,” she shared. “Evolution is inevitable, and it’s happening. Any African American or young person of color going into this field should know people do want diversity. Erase your own fears, doubts, and preconceived notions. You are wanted, and you will be welcomed. Go in and work hard because there is space for you, and we’re living examples of that.” Last year, of course, long-time animation exec Karen Rupert Toliver shared the Oscar for Best Animated Short for Hair Love, centered around a father caring for his daughter’s natural hair, with director/producer Matthew A. Cherry.

Should “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah or “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 win for Best Original Song, H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas, or British singer-songwriter Celeste Waite will be traveling in the same footsteps first occupied by Irene Cara who first won in this category with “Flashdance . . . What A Feeling” for the iconic dance film starring Jennifer Beal back in 1984, becoming the first Black woman to win a non-acting Oscar.

There is no real precedent for Sophia Nahli Allison who is nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for A Love Song for Latasha where the director/producer/cinematographer/editor of the short shares who Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl who was shot and killed in 1991 by Korean American convenience store owner Soon Ja Du over $1.79 bottle of orange juice, wanted to be and could have been. And the same goes for director Garrett Bradley, who is nominated for Best Documentary Feature for Time following the love story of Sybil Fox Richardson, better known as Fox Rich, and her husband Rob Richardson while battling the inequity of the criminal justice system for nearly 20 years. If either of these ladies (or both) win, they will unbelievably become the first Black women to ever win an Oscar for directing and they will do so telling the stories of Black women in a social justice arena where our stories go unamplified.

Black women especially have contributed to the broadcast in more ways than what is typically recognized.

Black women especially have contributed to the broadcast in more ways than is typically recognized. Debbie Allen choreographed the Oscars ten times, six of them consecutively, yet a search of her name on Oscars.org fails to acknowledge that history. Back in 2002, when Berry won her historic Oscar, director Kasi Lemmons produced the show’s Sidney Poitier tribute. Of course, Whoopi Goldberg remains the first and only Black woman to host the Oscars and she did so a remarkable four times, beginning in 1994 and ending in 2002, the year Halle Berry won for Best Actress.

Last year Stephanie Allain, who was critical to getting Boyz-N-the-Hood made and, thereby, launching John Singleton’s stellar career, became the first Black woman to serve as a producer for the Oscars. This year two more Black women — -Jeannae Rouzan-Clay and Dionne Harmon — joined that tiny club through main co-producer Jesse Collins and his Jesse Collins Entertainment banner, which scored big during the pandemic producing The BET Awards and the Super Bowl halftime show.

Rouzan-Clay and Harmon respectively serve as Vice President of Specials and Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy for Jesse Collins Entertainment with previous credits that include BET Presents Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration. Wordsmith Amberia Allen, whose credits include The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and The Last O.G., returns for her second year as a writer for the Oscars, with dream hampton, a former writer for such hip-hop publications as The Source and, most recently, well-known for her role producing the earthshattering Surviving R. Kelly, joining as a first-time writer of the storied awards show.

Arguably one of the biggest contributions a Black woman has made to the Oscars has come via Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a pioneering film marketing exec. From 2013 to 2017, she led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which puts on the Oscars, becoming the first person of color and only third woman to lead the organization. Ultimately, her greatest legacy in that capacity is expanding and diversifying the organization’s membership, making way for some considerable breakthroughs since April Reign launched her powerful “Oscars So White” campaign calling attention to the industry’s enduring racial inequity back in 2015 when not a single actor of color received an acting nomination.

When it comes to the Oscars and what it could be for us all, not just for one night, but for lasting and enduring change, Black women once again play huge roles. Perhaps there will come a time when we are adequately acknowledged for it as well.

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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