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A Look At Black Actresses Who Might Contend For The Best Actress Oscar + Some History

A Look At Black Actresses Who Might Contend For The Best Actress Oscar + Some History

It’s that time of the year, as prognosticators at every level start handicapping the Academy Awards, which are set to take place on February 24 (nominations will be announced on Januray 15, 2013).

As much as some of us might dismiss the Oscars as an indication of where black cinema is, or where blacks in cinema are, we can’t ignore their overall industry relevance. 

I can already hear the chants: who cares about the Oscars; they’re not for *us.* Well, a lot of folks in the industry (and out) do certainly care, and see value in the recognition. I plan to post a follow-up piece that looks at the history of the awards show, and how (or if) it’s impacted the careers of those black entertainers who’ve won trophies.

Last week, I focused on black actors who just might make the short list of Oscar nominees in the Best Actor (male) category when they’re announced in January (read that post HERE if you missed it); this week, my focus is on black actresses and the Best Actress category.

And just like the list of eligible black actors in the Best Actor category, the list of eligible black actresses for the Best Actress Oscar is very short – even shorter than the list of eligible black actors.

Of the 600+ films that will have seen Oscar-qualifying USA theatrical releases by the end of this year, I counted a total of 11 that feature a black actress in a leading role. Doing the math, that’s less than 2% of total volume (the black actors list was at 21).

It shouldn’t be shocking however; it’s a rare occurrence when we cover a film (especially a studio-backed project) that stars a black woman, or a film with a story that centers on the life of a black woman. Very, very, very rare.

And actually, it’s really less than 11, because I’m also including indie features in that number; and some of the titles aren’t really centered on a black woman character, but feature a black actress in a prominent role; however, likely not one that she’d get a Best Actress nomination for. 

In other words, I’m stretching here! If I were to be really strict, the figure would be closer to 6 or so.

As I said last week, it most certainly is a white man’s world, in case you needed that clarification. The overwhelming majority of films made and distributed by studios today, star white male actors. 

And if you take a closer look at the list of 11 films, you’d very quickly dismiss most of them as potential Oscar contenders, given what we know of the criteria for Oscar-caliber movies. In fact, I’d say of the 11, only 2 really stand a chance of making the short list of nominees for Best Actress. 

First, here’s the list of 11: Think Like a ManWoman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th DayJoyful Noise, Sparkle, Cloud Atlas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Won’t Back Down, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Middle of Nowhere, Dysfunctional Friends, and Django Unchained.

Automatically, we can eliminate ensemble cast films like Think Like A Man and Dysfunctional Friends, because, well, they’re ensemble cast movies, and I can’t say that any one character in those movies really stands head and shoulders above the rest, or is highlighted more-so than the others.

We can also say goodbye to films like Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas and Won’t Back Down. Again, while each features a leading female character played by a black actress, I’d say that if any of the actress performances in these films were to be nominated, they’d likely be in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

So that leaves us with Woman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th Day, Joyful Noise, Sparkle, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Celeste and Jesse Forever, and Middle of Nowhere.

And from that list of 6 remaining, based on the performances of each film (in terms of criteria like box office, critical acclaim – reviews, awards already won – overall awareness – especially where it matters – and awards season buzz), it shouldn’t at all be difficult to narrow the 6 down to 2: Quvenzhané Wallis for her performance in Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Emayatzy Corinealdi for her work in Middle Of Nowhere.

And of the two young actresses, based on what the so-called experts on these matters are saying, as I look through several of their projections lists, I’d say that Ms Wallis has the edge over Emayatzy; and not necessarily because she gives a better performance. These are two very different performances (ostentatious versus understated) in 2 very different films. But one crossed over quite early on, and won over audiences widely – a splashy kind of an intro that only seemed to pick up steam beyond that – while the other seemed to gradually, deliberately, if quietly, build momentum. 

And it could also be a matter of allotted marketing budgets for each.

Interestingly, both campaigns seemingly take on the personalities of the films themselves.

But maybe there’s room for both of them on the short list of 5 nominees. However, despite all the certainty among the pros that Wallis is practically a sure-thing, I’m still not entirely confident about that, and probably won’t be until the nominations are actually announced. Nothing’s a guarantee, and we just might be surprised to see an all-white list of Best Actress nominees.

Their competition at this point, based on an aggregate of several top lists I’ve looked at are: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook (several say she’s the front-runner);  Marion Cotillard, Rust and BoneEmmanuelle Riva, AmourNaomi WattsThe ImpossibleHelen Mirren, Hitchcock; of course, you can never count out Meryl Streep, Hope SpringsKeira Knightley in another period piece, Anna Karenina; Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed; and Laura Linney, Hyde Park on Hudson.

There were others, but these were mentioned most often – especially the first few. 

I did see some mention Viola Davis for Won’t Back Down as a potential; but, as I said in my write-up of that film, it really was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s story, as far as I’m concerned. Viola Davis was more of a supporting character in that film. But I don’t think any of that matters anyway, because the movie wasn’t well-received, critically and commercially. Any mentions of a potential Viola Davis Best Actress nomination here, I’d say are maybe more of a nod to her past work and ability, than to her performance as a rather uninteresting, and underwritten character, in what was ultimately a forgettable movie.

There was at least one mention of Rashida Jones in Celeste And Jesse Forever; but, despite good reviews, it didn’t quite register at the box office, and there’s just not enough buzz around the film, or any of the performances, that draw Academy attention to her.

The last time a black actress was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar was Viola Davis, for her performance in The Help, last year. The last time 2 black actresses were nominated for Best Actress in the same year was in 1972, when Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder), both were on the short list; although neither of them won. And that was the ONLY time in Oscar history that more than 1 black actress has been nominated in that category. 

The last time a black actress WON the Oscar for Best Actress was… this should be easy, because it’s only happened ONCE in history… Halle Berry for her performance in Monster’s Ball, in 2001 – 11 years ago.

And it looks like that *streak* (if we can call it that) will continue next year, unless a black actress wins the award in 2013.

Still a long way to go…

Any glaring ommissions on my part here, in terms of potential black Best Actress nominees…? Madea, maybe? Thandie Newton in Good Deeds? Nah… probably neither.

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Jimalle Johnson

Oops, that should be The Exorcist, not The Last Picture Show. Ellen's win for Alice was more of a make-up award for being passed over for both of those powerhouse performances.

Jimalle Johnson

"But there is a reason Halle Berry is the only woman of color to win an Oscar. She was the only one to truly deserve it. She blew away her competition. As much as I love Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, their performances were not as good as those given by Liza Minnelli in CABARET and Ellen Burstyn in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE."
I disagree, for a few reasons:
1) Halle's competition was seriously weak—only Sissy Spacek posed the greatest threat. I bet the vote tally was real close, for it could have gone to either lady (both were the female leads in their films but, like Viola in The Help, disappear for stretches of time). Many focus on her being unglamorous, but the physicality of Halle's role probably gave her the edge; that fifteen minutes where her son is struck by the car and Billy Bob drives her home from the hospital probably clinched it (her breakdown is a gut-puncher). And, she was still riding high off her Emmy win for Dorothy Dandridge, so could her being "the first" been a factor in the voting? With all the talk about her and Denzel leading up to awards night, and Sidney Poitier receiving a special Oscar…
2) Liza pulled out the win because she was in a beloved musical (Cabaret swept the technical awards, even shutting out The Godfather), and she is Judy Garland's daughter. Yes, Liza was good in Cabaret, but better than The Boss, who owned every frame of Lady Sings The Blues? Not. If Berry Gordy had been a little more subtle in his campaign for Ross, she might've triumphed.
3) Even Ellen felt she had no chance against Diahann—which is why she stayed home. If she had won the year before (as many predicted she would have) for The Last Picture Show, Diahann may have been the first Black Best Actress winner—and a very deserving one at that (she, like Halle, was also well-liked, respected, and took on a role many thought she was too glamorous to play).


Man, since I found out Whoopi lost for Color Purple but won for Ghost that they basically don't give a damn about how great our people perform. Basically, they every few years throw one of ours in there, not necessarily so we'll win, but so they can at least say they nominated us.

In my opinion, we won't probably see a winner this year, and the next person I see winning is Viola Davis since she is the only one really with a good consistent body of work. She keeps her face out there, gives good interviews, and is able to do both Hollywood films and indie films.

Tony Barnes

Unfortunately, there are not very many good roles for women in Hollywood Films; there are even fewer for black actresses. There is talk that the young performer for BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN WILD will get nominated. But there is a reason Halle Berry is the only woman of color to win an Oscar. She was the only one to truly deserve it. She blew away her competition. As much as I love Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, their performances were not as good as those given by Liza Minnelli in CABARET and Ellen Burstyn in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. And the wonderful Viola Davis is the only black actress to give an Oscar worthy performance in a lead role since Miss Berry's win.


what about Rachel Mwanza from Canada's entry for Best Foreign Language Film, "War Witch"? She already won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale and she got good reviews.


Bottom line is box-office, critics reviews and a recognizable name are all part of getting a nomination. Middle of Nowhere has made only $200K, Smashed only $300K. Both have good reviews but not many people are getting the chance to see these films. Advertising budget is nada. Only reason Mary Elizabeth Winstead is brought up on a few websites as a longshot is because she is already known from her other films. But compare her film about alcoholism to Denzel Washington's. Denzel's Flight has already made $63 MILIION. So he is already in the top 5, Winstead is not. Beasts of the Southern Wild has made over $10 Million, that's some good box office for such a small film. The film also has the most straight 100 scores on Metacritic (better than Rottentomaties) from critics of ANY film this year. More than Lincoln, Argo, Flight, Life of Pi. Which means little Wallis is in that top 5 list too.


FYI… Oscar nominations are January 10th.


You were dead wrong for the last 3 sentences of this post. :)

Vanessa Martinez

I would be willing to bet on Wallis for a nomination; Corinealdi..not so much, although she's very deserving of it (saw the film on its limited theatrical release about a month ago). It would be surprising from the Academy, and great if it happens. Not holding my breath though, they've made too many glaring omissions in the past in regards to black actresses (PARIAH anyone?). Relative box office success and a not-so-limited theatrical release is critical for these nominations anyways.

Tami Sawyer

Lol at your closing. It would be nice to see the two ladies nominated. They gave great turns this year. I am partial to Young Miss Wallis.

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