With Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor heading the 2014 Oscar race for their roles in “12 Years a Slave,” it’s time to look back at the trails blazed by other award-winning black actors. You can count on two sets of hands the number of black actors who won Oscars, but the times they are a-changing. Discrimination is taking a back seat to talent. Here are 10.
The first black performer to win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel shattered the glass ceiling. At a time when blacks weren’t allowed the same civil rights as whites in America, McDaniel was up on the silver screen playing Mammy, Scarlet O’Hara’s tough-loving head house slave in the 1939 classic, “Gone with the Wind.” Hollywood, usually ahead of the game when it comes to progressive thinking, was slow to move. The night McDaniel won her Oscar, she was seated at a segregated table away from her fellow cast members. Her tearful acceptance cry of “Hallelujah!” carried over to black actors in generations to come.
The first black male actor to win an Academy Award, and bursting through the dead air of 24 years between McDaniel and any other black Oscar winner, the staggeringly handsome and talented Poitier moved audiences with his performance as a handyman who befriends a group of German nuns in the 1963 movie, “Lilies of the Field.” American born of Bahamian descent, Poitier was nominated once before for his role in the 1958 film, “The Defiant Ones.” In 2001, the Academy honored him with a lifetime achievement award.
Millions watched Berry as she mounted the stage, breathless and sobbing, for her historical Best Actress win in 2001 for “Monster’s Ball.” She was the first black woman to win an Oscar in a leading category. Talented beauties like Diana Ross and Angela Bassett were nominated but never won. The daughter of a mixed race couple, Berry thanked those who had come before her, paving the way for her once-in-a-lifetime chance that special night.
This gal! Originally a comedian (and still super-hilarious and mutli-talented), Whoopi Goldberg got her first big shot in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” She was an overnight sensation and Best Actress nominee in 1985. In 1990, she played Oda Mae Brown, the sham clairvoyant who actually wasn’t a sham in the box office smash, “Ghost.” Months later, she became the first black woman since Hattie McDaniel–more than 50 years earlier –to win the golden guy. “Sister Act,” “The View,”…her career skyrocketed afterwards.
Not one but two Oscars later, Denzel Washington is still the hottest ticket in town. His first nomination was in the 1987 apartheid drama, “Cry Freedom.” Two years later he saw his greatest role to date as one of the all-black volunteer Civil War soldiers in “Glory.” In the scene that landed him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he was lashed over and over again, maintaining his intense anger while a single teardrop fell. In 2001, it happened again. Washington collected the first Best Actor Oscar for a black leading man since Sidney Poitier.
From the moment she stepped onto the camera on “American Idol,” we knew we had a winner, but it was unforseen how much she’d win (she only placed eighth in that competition). From the moment “Dreamgirls” hit the big screen, Oscar buzz was deafening for her. As Effie White, her rousing number, “And I am Telling You” garnered applause mid-movie in almost every theater. She made it. In January 2008, Hudson won Best Supporting Actress for her first-ever film role. The Chicago girl with starry eyes tearfully thanked her entire family, and the next chapter of her career began.
At the 1983 Academy Awards ceremony, money was put on anyone else but Louis Gossett Jr. to win the Supporting Actor Award. The hit film, “An Officer and a Gentleman” featured Gossett Jr. as Sgt. Emil Foley, the foil for Richard Gere’s hot-headed Army camp recruit. When his name was called, he became the first black male actor to win a supporting Oscar in history. While his career ebbed and flowed after his win, history remembers that great night in Hollywood.
Mo’Nique is my personal pick for one of the most powerful, penetrating performances of all time. Did anyone predict early in her career that the rowdy Mo’Nique of “The Parkers” fame would win an award for perhaps the most dreadfully serious performance in film history? As Mary Jones, the monstrous, spitting, deeply wounded mother of the struggling heroine in “Precious,” Mo’Nique shocked the world with her operatic, seriously offensive and hurtful monologues toward her oppressed daughter. The standing ovation she received in 2009 after winning Best Supporting Actress was proof. She has not made another film to date. How can she best “Precious?”
The man whose voice should lull everyone to sleep every night, Morgan Freeman is a legend. From his early Oscar-nominated roles in “Street Smart” and “Driving Miss Daisy” to his unforgettable turn in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Freeman racked up four nominations before winning for his role as a boxing trainer in Clint Eastwood’s moving 2005 film, “Million Dollar Baby.”
Jamie Foxx — rapper, singer, comedian, TV star, and film actor — incarnated the role of Ray Charles like it was a second skin. Singing, laughing behind sunglasses, womanizing, drugging, and changing music history for the better, Foxx laid all of Charles’ trials and tribulations out on the table in the 2005 film “Ray.” His acceptance speech when he won Best Actor is worth watching. He thanked his late grandmother for giving him strength.