Last week, Oprah Winfrey missed out on a second potential Oscar nomination, and with it, the chance of becoming the oldest African American actress ever to win an Academy Award (the current oldest was also the first - Hatty McDaniel at the tender age of 44). No black women over 50 have ever been nominated for Best Actress, and only two have been honored in the supporting category. Given that Ruby Dee’s 2007 nomination was for a 6-minute role in “American Gangster”, and the only other previous nominee is Ethel Waters in 1949, it’s fair to say that it is not a demographic that has much history of registering with Oscar voters.
Not that the Oscars are the be-all and end-all, but they are certainly a useful gauge for the quality of substantial mainstream film roles available to American actresses. Cast the net wider, and a similarly bleak picture emerges. Cora Lee Day takes top billing in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” but this is not a lead role in any conventional sense. Alfre Woodard is also the first-billed star in Tyler Perry’s “The Family That Preys”, but the film is likewise an ensemble drama.
Darling Legitimus won the Best Actress Award in Venice for Euzhan Palcy’s “Sugar Cane Alley”, but she is not the film’s protagonist. On television, S. Epatha Merkerson won a Best Actress Golden Globe for HBO’s “Lackawanna Blues” while Cicely Tyson took the title role in “Mama Flora’s Family”. But if we are talking about theatrically released feature films in which black women aged 50 or over are inarguably the lead character, the only instances I can find are the later films of one-of-a-kind comedian Moms Mabley. Which hardly says great things about the status quo when she was born in 1894.
I am no film historian, and if I have made oversights I would be glad to be informed. Either way, it is clear that cinema has done a woeful disservice to the stories of black women of a certain age. The reasons for this are depressingly apparent, as Stephanie Allain, producer of “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”, confirmed to me. “In Hollywood, there is often less interest in stories about people of color, and of course to those executives, women are less desirable than men and older women of color seem to have the least amount of cachet”.
Producers such as Allain who might wish to make a film with an older black female protagonist thus find themselves fighting a battle on three fronts. “They use international sales numbers as evidence” she explains, “but without substantial marketing dollars, none of our movies will play well. What's the adage? It takes money to make money”.
But this is no excuse for the situation being quite so dismal. Many black men have retained leading man status after 50, including Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Forest Whitaker and Eddie Murphy. Fourteen women over 50 have been nominated for Best Actress Oscars in the past decade, while last year I wrote a list of ten $100 million hits starring women over 50. Needless to say, all were white.
But where are the leading roles for their African-American equivalents? The spy thriller starring Angela Bassett? A biopic of Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf featuring Loretta Devine? A “Banger Sisters” equivalent led by Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad? Even a modest indie drama or two?
Viola Davis, the oldest black woman ever nominated for Best Actress (aged 46), was criticized for taking her role as a maid in “The Help”, but she has bemoaned the quality of parts offered to an actress such as herself. “Do you know the black equivalent of a Meryl Streep? Or a Julia Roberts or a Nicole Kidman?” she asked provocatively. “The only category is for a strong authoritative hoochie mama. If you exude anything else, you don’t exist. There is no character for you”.
At this point, simply receiving another Best Actress Oscar nomination would be unprecedented for a woman of Davis’s age and race, but the idea that she won’t ever achieve such a feat - not to mention the fact that it has never happened previously - is beyond depressing. Of course, Davis has had a Hollywood career that most actors of any race can only dream of. But the fact that older black women are never permitted to be the protagonists of cinematic narratives is limiting not only to the actors themselves but audiences and the culture at large. Indeed, when Davis expressed her frustration as a film viewer, rather than an actress, the results were heartbreaking. “I'm a black woman from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I'm dark-skinned, I'm quirky, I'm shy, I'm strong, I'm guarded, I'm weak at times, I'm sensual, I'm not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen”.
There are, however, sheds of light. When I told Stephanie Allain that I would love to see Alfre Woodard in the type of role Meryl Streep gets to play for Nancy Meyers, I was in for a surprise. “I'm actually producing a film starring Alfre which is a lovely mid-life coming of age story written by her husband, Roderick Spencer. I'm excited to bring this story to the screen because there is nothing more beautiful than a black woman of a certain age finding herself! I find it sad that many images of middle aged black women on the big screen are actually men dressed as women, like Madea or Big Momma”.
It is beyond encouraging that an influential producer such as Allain has both an optimistic outlook and concrete plans to tap into this vastly neglected pool of talent and stories. “In a world in which most mainstream films are made for and about boys and men between the ages of 15-35, it's not surprising that a black actress over 50 has never been Oscar-nominated” she suggests. “But with some of our best actresses maturing - Angela Bassett, S. Epatha Merkerson, Alfre Woodard, Felicia Rashad etc - hopefully we will see more films starring them”.
Viola Davis puts it more bluntly. “Just write a story. Just take a risk and tell the most fantastical story that you've ever wanted to tell and then put it in my lap, or Octavia's lap, or Cicely Tyson's lap, or Angela Bassett's lap”.
Consider it an urgent request.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.