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The Academy Award Effect: Does Winning Help Black Actors’ Careers?

The Academy Award Effect: Does Winning Help Black Actors’ Careers?

EDITOR’S NOTE: A year-old piece I thought was worth reposting, if only for those who weren’t reading this site last February, when it was originally published, and also as a reminder, with the Oscar ceremony scheduled to take place this Sunday night…

Now that Oscar season is upon us, a deluge of commentary is sure to crop up on the Web about the various disappointments: the black actors who weren’t nominated, those who were nominated but weren’t deserving, and the default (legitimate) argument that there just aren’t enough quality roles for black actors.

We at Shadow & Act thought it would be fun to take a few steps back and look at the past 20+ years of black Oscar winners and evaluate whether an Oscar is all that it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’re black in Hollywood. What is it really worth in terms of a black actor’s career? What kind of political minefield must one tap dance on? Does it guarantee more money? Are black actors welcomed into the coveted A-List? And perhaps most important: Will said black Oscar winner be working in the next two, three years? And if so, will it be Oscar-caliber work or the same old stereotypes?

In the last two decades, give or take, we’ve seen the largest number of black Oscar winners. Ten to be exact: five men and five women. Regrettably not equally distributed in categories of leading and supporting roles or along gender lines. As we know black actresses have a harder time winning and getting roles as leading ladies.

Let’s take a close look at the 10 Oscar winners, examining whether the Oscar has made a difference, if at all, to their careers.

Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress in 1990 for playing Oda Mae Brown in Ghost making her the second African American woman to win in the category of Best Supporting Actress. Her predecessor is Hattie McDaniel, who’s the first African American to win an Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Few actors—black or white—can hold a candle to Ms. Goldberg. Disappointingly, however, her best work happened in the 1980s culminating with Ghost (1990). Her biggest films Post-Oscar include Sister Act (1992), Sarafina (1992) and Corrina, Corrina (1994). Part of the disappointment is that Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with Ms. Goldberg who is both hysterically funny and a dramatic force on screen. In several previous interviews, Ms. Goldberg talked openly about directors giving her a hard time because of her looks. On the whole, Ms. Goldberg’s Oscar seems inconsequential as she hasn’t headlined a major film since Sister Act 2 (1992) and she’s gone into semi-retirement making appearances on television shows and becoming a talking head on the talk show, The View

Cuba Gooding, Jr won Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for playing Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire where his performance is best summarized by the line he made famous: “Show Me The Money.” For the most part, the Oscar win has allowed Gooding to work steadily in a slew of major films alongside phenomenal co-stars. We could argue, however, that his output has been a bit uneven. I’m not sure how you recover from doing a film like Rat Race (2001) though it remains one of my favorites to date. Another bomb of a film is Radio (2003) that I maintain made a poor attempt at being a black version of Forrest Gump. Add to that, Gooding has been seriously typecast as a boy scout. Rarely, if ever, have I seen Gooding play against type, something different and challenging. I expect nothing less from an Oscar winner.

Halle Berry won Best Lead Actress in 2001 for playing Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball amid a sandstorm of controversy. The win made Halle Berry the first black woman to win in the category of Lead Actress. What’s fascinating about Ms. Berry’s career is that she’s repeatedly told reporters that her beauty has been a hurdle in her career. Winning an Oscar definitely catapulted Halle Berry into the upper echelons of Hollywood. Her output post-Oscar has been uneven but lucrative I gather from reports. Her best work happened pre-Oscar: playing in Jungle Fever (1991), Boomerang (1992) and Queen (1993), a television mini-series. What’s interesting to note is that Ms. Berry has used her relative clout in Hollywood to produce some high quality film projects including Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) a TV movie; Lackawanna Blues (2005), also a TV movie; and the obscure stand out film that hardly anyone was able to see Frankie & Alice (2010). Winning an Oscar for Ms. Berry, has been double-edged, you almost get the sense that she (like most black actresses) wants to stretch and show off her acting chops but the scripts attached to the big budgets don’t seem to be making their way to her.

That same year, Denzel Washington won his second Oscar for portraying Det. Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001) for which he won Best Lead Actor. Washington’s first Oscar was for Best Supporting Actor in the film Glory (1989.) The very night that Washington won his Oscar, the Academy also gave a special honor to Sidney Poitier for his illustrious career. At the podium, Washington looked at Poitier and said, “I’ll always be chasing after you, Sidney.” It’s a challenge to gauge whether the second Oscar added much to Washington’s already enviable acting career. In terms of Washington’s output, it seems that his career is evenly split between his two Oscars. In his early career, Washington’s mostly acclaimed and memorable roles were his historic/biographical film roles such as Glory (1989), Cry Freedom (1987) and Malcolm X (1992). His recent work is so radically different from his earlier work that it is almost as if another actor has switched places with Mr. Washington. Some might say this is a testament to his A-List status and how much of a brand Denzel Washington has become. It’s been reported widely that he commands around $20 Million per movie. Not many actors can make this claim—black or white. Yet still his recent work, in my view, has been underwhelming.

Jamie Foxx won Best Lead Actor in 2004 for playing Ray Charles in Ray. The multitalented actor—who also sings and does stand-up —has been reaping all of the rewards of an Oscar win as his film projects have been steadily impressive since Ray, lifting him in stature in Hollywood. Mr. Foxx is an incredibly versatile talent, equally comfortable playing serious or funny or supporting and or leading roles. The hoopla surrounding his recent lead role in the controversial Django (2012) suggests that Mr. Foxx will continue to climb. Reports indicate that the Texan-born actor earns approximately $10 Million per movie. It will be interesting to see if Foxx will take on more period films in the vein of Django. It’s definitely a first for the actor, and given its commercial success, people seem to be responding.  Jamie earned two Oscar nominations in 2004.  His performance in Ray earned a Best Actor award, while his performance in Collateral earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Morgan Freeman won Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for playing Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris in Million Dollar Baby. It’s been said that many actors receive Oscars for their careers, not always for a stand out performance. This is my suspicion with Morgan Freeman’s win in 2004. Almost everyone talks about Freeman’s acclaimed performances in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994.) For a career spanning over four decades, this Oscar win didn’t help much in terms of visibility, as he was already a veteran actor when he won in 2004. However, it most likely has helped in terms of larger pay and steadily landing plum roles in major films. How many actors have played God? In terms of quality of roles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that a large body of Morgan Freeman’s work occupies the mentor/sidekick stereotype. Granted this could be a consequence of his age but older actors ought to be fully realized as human as well. To date, my personal favorite is his portrayal of Principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me (1989). 

Forest Whitaker won Best Lead Actor in 2006 for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Forrest Whitaker is an actor’s actor. Probably the most talented of all the male winners on this list—a male peer of Whoopi Goldberg. In the past six years since snagging the Academy win for his portrayal of Idi Amin, Whitaker has done some television and voice work along with an array of cop flicks including Vantage Point (2008) and Freelancers (2012.) It would be nice to see Whitaker in more dramatic roles as the gun-totting cop role is a bit nondescript. Anyone can do those kinds of movies. But not every actor can transform into a character the way Forrest Whitaker can. His best work has been in supporting roles in small films like The Great Debaters (2007) and the television film The Feast of All Saints (2001.) His work behind the screen is equally stellar; take a look at his producing credits. It’s nice to know that a talent of this caliber isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and help bring projects to the light of day. 

Jennifer Hudson won Best Supporting Actress in 2006 for playing Effie White in Dreamgirls. The American Idol alumna’s relatively short-lived stardom was multiplied and taken through the roof with the adaptation of Dreamgirls (2006) to the silver screen. Hudson was already a household name during her tenure with American Idol. However winning the Oscar put her on the fast track as an actor. Since winning the Oscar, Hudson has gone on to play in films Sex in the City (2008), The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Winnie (2011.) With more dramatic roles, Hudson may well “have it all” picking up where Whitney Houston left off.

Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for playing Mary in Precious. Outside of her short-lived late night show on BET, we haven’t seen much of Mo’Nique. We all remember the flower that adorned her hair on Oscar night, a nod to the late Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American actress to win an Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actress. There have been many reports, including on this site, of Mo’Nique’s interest in playing the late Hattie McDaniel. It’s too soon to say how the Oscar has impacted Mo’Nique’s career that deliberately exists on the fringes of Hollywood.

Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress in 2011 for playing Minny Jackson in The Help. It’s probably too soon to make any predictions on how this Oscar may have helped Octavia Spencer’s career. Spencer is a comedic actress mostly and this was the first time I’ve seen her play a dramatic role. Because so much of the roles for black actors are saturated in stereotypes, Spencer’s role as a complicated and sassy domestic might earn her some extra jobs in Hollywood. Spencer has described her Oscar win as a “needle mover” not overstating its ability to bump her career by any stretch in a recent interview and post on Shadow & Act.

If anything, this exercise has shown that winning an Oscar promises absolutely nothing to actors—black or white. Hollywood is particularly ungenerous to actresses, particularly actresses of color. But I shy away from making too many comparisons to white actors because their path to the Oscars are almost always worlds different from their black colleagues in terms of pay, production budgets, and caliber of scripts.

When asked if the dearth of quality roles for black actors was a matter of racism, Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis responded that many of the scripts that she receives are written by up-and-coming black screenwriters and most of the roles presented to her are of urban crack-addicted mothers. (Here’s the link: skip to 5:10.)

In short, on all levels there needs to be a sharing of responsibility—from deep pockets to young independent filmmakers—to ensure that black actors, especially actresses, are given an opportunity to be recognized for all of the training and tenacity it takes to succeed in Hollywood.

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Personally I thin k that many of the actors mentioned here lose out on good roles, because they do not continue to work on their craft; instead looking for big paydays WHAT ABOUT BROADWAY. You see a lot of the English actors going back to GB to work, and they get better over time. Mirren. Patrick Stewart etc go back to the stage and it helps them . Why not do "Fences" Cuba Gooding ( Although I liked Men of Honor)? What about RAISIN IN THE SUN Halle Berry instead of Catwoman?Now it should be noted that there are a lot of Caucasian actresses who flop too after winning e g Reese Witherspoon, Mira Sorvino, Helen Hunt, Hilary Swank, so I cannot simply issue a mandate on all of the actors, but take smaller roles too ( in which yo can produce the film like Brad Pitt for 12 year) or true detective's Mcconahey . I see Octavia Spencer did that (with Fruitvale Station),so they may be thinking that way. FWhit directed too

The Ebony Cinematheque

It does…. if you're educated in the industry and understand that this is a tool, a tool to get you closer to where you want to be. But mostly when in comes to new and undiscovered talent winning this award, they are not well versed in Hollywood or the industry and don't know how to use this "tool" to negotiate for themselves(Barkhad Abdi). When black actors are so starved for work early in the career they accept any type of project, in unique circumstances, one of those projects will lead to a nomination and in a miracle a win but sometimes after that win, the actors haven't processed that this is now a tool to negotiate with and return back to the previous work ethic of doing "any" type of project (Halle Berry) or it inflates ego to a level they haven't quite earned yet but could use the award to attain(Monique). But in rare cases, some actors realize the potential of an Oscar and use it to give themselves the career they've always wanted (Forest Whitaker), either way it boils down to business savvy and knowledge.


You forget Morgan Freeman's "Alex Cross". Though in the novels Cross is a younger man Freeman's portrayal was thoughtful and understated as I would imagine a psychologist/profiler/policeman should be. In the second movie "Along Came a Spider", Cross was supposed to have a relationship with the antagonist, but there was too much difference in age to make that plausible in the film. Tyler Perry's portrayal as Cross was an atrocity.


I think Forest Whitaker's best roles were in Ghostdog from Jim Jamusch and The Crying Game from Neil Jordan.

Bacall McElroy

I think your making a mistake by analyzing the nuts and bolts of particular Oscar wins over their collective impact for Blacks in the industry . Making more money and being in more movies after an Oscar win is hoped for course, but nothing is guaranteed in Hollywood and the actors know that better than anyone. I think the importance of winning an Oscar is about being recognized and respected as an artist. It's a stamp of legitimacy, a "you've arrived" type deal. Being recognized and legitimized in such a highly regarded mainstream way certainly helps Blacks in all aspects of film.


Certainly, winning can help one's career. But, really, it's all in how one chooses to leverage one's power — and this is regardless of race. But I will stick with black actors because that is what this site is all about.

Once one has won an Oscar — or even simply been nominated — the next step that dictates long-term success is all about who you surround yourself with: agent/manager/producers/directors/projects. And many nominees, and winners, have stumbled, in the aftermath of the glow.

Arguably, everyone mentioned in the article, with the exception of Cuba Gooding Jr., until his more recent turns in "As Good as it Gets," and "The Butler" has done reasonably well, in terms of being able to land/produce other projects with range, and scope that interest them while still maintaining a certain level of public interest needed to help them continue to succeed.

Additionally, I would add that Mo'Nique has made some very questionable choices that might turn out to hurt her career. If you're black, especially, you have to strike while the fire is hot. You can't take time off. People forget and move on, or end up not caring. In some ways, Octavia Spencer now fits into the spot that was once MoNique's. Everyone is talking about her projects and what she's doing. No one is as interested in MoNique and her new movie project with Isaiah Washington. At least, I am not.


ITS THEIR AGENTS. those evil agents they surround themselves with after they win. the agents never get the scripts they DO get, sent to them unless the fee is 1million dollars.
They forget indie projects once the oscar buzz gets into their head and they pay for it by fading out. Kerry has never won an oscar but she is bigger than of them who have or been nominated because she keeps working. She even did terrible Peeples.

Patch Neck Red

If you look at the nominees the last 20 years from Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Don Cheadle, Sophie Okenedo, Michael Clark Duncan (r.i.p), Marianne Jean Baptiste, Terrance Howard, & Viola Davis they all have a great body of work. The vision should be just do the work don't worry about those awards. Align yourself with people who can help you expand your brand for the long haul. James Earl Jones often speaks about not having a strategic plan like a Tom Crusie and he has done just fine but if that is not enough to satisfy this question we should look at two Black artist who have had an Oscar Nominations one is the most Bankable Star Power today period and the other has align himself with artist who understands his diversity and he has the highest box office numbers of all time, I speak of Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson. Please quit trying to put us in a box the sky is the limit to what you think. Like my Father use to say " If you know better you'll do better"IJS


it's not a lack of quality black roles but a lack of quality black actors. an actor is not good, by default, because they're black. that's a trap kid.

i keep reading about "script this" and "role that"–get outta here man. it's a simple question: how good are you? & that can only be substantiated by your resume, not by you, of yourself.

are there obstacles/challenges/struggles facing a black actor? duh. so what are you gonna do?

& glad we can all agree that winning an oscar promises nothing to an actor, whatever their ethnicity. one psychological hurdle cleared. next.?


I think being nominated is more beneficial than the win most of the time. The nomination welcomes you to the big leagues, opens the door for more opportunity. With the win comes heightened expectations and standards, the burden of being the "best." Some people crack beneath that burden, some don't have the right team in place, and some were never meant to be stars/don't have "it" to back up the win. I don't give a good got damn what anybody has to say, Octavia Spencer is not only not a star, but also lacks range as an actor. It's going to be very interesting to watch where she goes from here as she's now "too good" for the supporting/character roles that fit her perfectly, but incapable of headlining her own projects. Her people need to get her a co-lead on a premium cable TV show.

Gene Cross

I don't think most people understand how the business really works. For an actor to win an academy award, and go to do better roles, both are like winning the lottery.
Denzel has been around since St. Elswhere, Jamie Foxx had his own show. Morgan has always done outstanding work. Hallie is very talented, but who knows, maybe that was her only shot. Perhaps she spends more time at being a star, than being an actress. Cuba, very likeable, but you never get the feeling he is stretching that much.
Forrest, I think is a better director than actor, and we are limited because of our looks in what we can get away with playing. I have spent time on sets with everyone of them, when they were just starting out. Denzel, Jamie, and Morgan, every one love's
watching them, that's why they are stars, you can't manufacture that but they always try time after time. At that level, they have the best writers, producers and directors making sure they look good. Most actors hardly make a living wage. Especially black actors. The most important thing is story. And really the only talent in Hollywood, is the person who can find the money to get the film made.


For the record, this website is a space where all the films, television shows, web series, short films, cartoons, directors, writers, actors and actresses who are affiliated with the African diaspora can be discussed and showcased, along with any issues that may or may not confront the aforementioned entities.


What about Asian actors, Indian Actors, Middle Eastern Actors ? We are part of american cinema too.


I'm thinking that perhaps Halle Berry and Cuba Gooding Jr. might have made a couple of questionable film role choices. Perhaps, in the past, it was more about color but these days, I tend to wonder whether the Oscar really helps anyone's career in the long run anymore, especially if they make dodgy film choices, regardless of color. Where's Adrien Brody these days? I'm not being sarcastic, I genuinely want to know.

Ian Evans

Also Pay Homage To Louis Gossett, Jr.!


Kudos to all the HANDKERCHIEF HEADS whom still swirls around the toilet basin of amerika.


Now, come on, cut this b***sh*t with black and white nonsense… race don't matter, same as eye-color don't matter, i though we're through with these KKK remarks, it's 2013 people…will these ever stop… what if Halle Berry won an oscar and then her carrier slowed down because she became greedy for money… same thing with Forrest Whiatker (he's even doin' movies with one of the most talented actors ever, the only one who could upset DDL with his performances, the mighty 50 CENT ). etc etc

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