It’s an inevitable debate during awards season – who won,
who really should have won, and for
which role. When it comes to black actors in particular, there’s a
longstanding belief that the Academy routinely gets it wrong, snubbing certain
Oscar-worthy performances and choosing instead to hand out the trophy for roles
that don’t quite cut it.
In anticipation of the Academy Award ceremony this weekend,
here’s a look back at the black actors who’ve taken home the Oscar, and which
other roles they should have won for, if any.
Won for: Homer Smith, Lilies of the Field (1963)
Should have won for: Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night (1967).
Poitier’s role as detective Virgil Tibbs is one of his most memorable, but
Poitier was possibly passed over in light of his recent win. In The Heat of the Night was also nominated
in seven other categories, winning five, including Best Picture.
Won for: Alonzo Harris, Training Day (2001)
Should have won for: Malcolm X, Malcolm X (1992). Maybe
the most obvious entry on this list, as the slain civil rights activist is
still considered one of Washington’s most iconic roles. X director Spike Lee is
remembered for his criticism of the Academy for failing to recognize both
Washington and the film, saying, “I’m not the only one who thinks Denzel
was robbed on that one.”
Won for: Ray Charles, Ray (2004)
This one was on the money as far as Foxx’s performances go.
Until Ray in 2004, Foxx’s most
acclaimed roles had been supporting turns as Drew “Bundini” Brown in Ali
(2001) and Willie Beamen in
Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999).
But in the “got it wrong” category, some felt the Best Actor Oscar should have
gone to Don Cheadle, who starred in Hotel
Rwanda that year.
Won for: Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Looks like the Academy got it right on this one, as there
were few complaints about Whitaker’s Best Actor win. With Will Smith nominated alongside him for The Pursuit of Happyness,
Whitaker was still the favorite to win for his portrayal of brutal Ugandan
dictator Idi Amin, for which he also won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.
If there were another role Whitaker should have won for, it
might be in Clint Eastwood’s Charlie
Parker biopic Bird (1988), for which he won a Golden Globe instead.
Won for: Leticia Musgrove, Monster’s Ball (2001)
I’d argue that Berry’s strongest and most memorable work has
actually been in television instead of film. Starring roles in biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
(1999) and Alex Haley’s Queen (1993) have been some of her most solid
dramatic performances to date. For Dandridge,
Berry walked away with a Golden Globe, Emmy and an NAACP Image Award.
Best Supporting Actor
Louis Gossett, Jr.
Won for: Sgt. Foley, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
In his seven decade-long career, Sgt. Foley is still perhaps
Gossett’s best known feature film role. But with at least 11 upcoming projects
listed on his slate between now and 2016, including Clement Virgo’s Book of Negroes adaptation and Vondie Curtis Hall’s Robeson
biopic, the veteran actor’s next iconic role could be yet to come.
Won for: Pvt. Trip, Glory (1989)
Should have won for: Take your pick. Arguably, Washington’s
Oscar for Glory was well deserved,
but during his heyday from the late ’80s to mid-90’s, he gave a series of
Oscar-caliber performances in hard-hitting dramas like A Soldier’s Story (1984),
(1993), and Cry Freedom (1987), for which he also received a nomination.
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Won for: Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire (1996)
Beyond 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, which earned
director John Singleton nominations
for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Jerry Maguire is about as good as it gets for Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Won for: Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Should have won for: Joe Clark, Lean on Me (1989)
When Freeman spoke with THR a few years ago, he cited no-nonsense principal Joe
Clark as one of a handful of roles that defined his five decade-long career. He
was instead nominated for an Oscar in 1989 for his supporting role in Driving
Regarding his win for Million
Dollar Baby he said, “It actually kinda felt anticlimactic. I
guess you just sort of know you can only get so many nominations before they
decide, ‘Oh, why don’t we just give it to him?'”
Best Supporting Actress
Won for: Mammy, Gone with the Wind (1939)
Unfortunately, it’s well known that during McDaniel’s time, the few acting opportunities available to blacks were minor roles as servants. By the time McDaniel won the Oscar in 1939, she had played a maid, cook or servant in over 30 films.
Won for: Oda Mae Brown, Ghost (1990)
Should have won for: Celie, The Color Purple (1985).
She was actually nominated in the Best Actress category, an award that film
critic Roger Ebert predicted she
would win. Instead, the Oscar went to Geraldine
Page for The Trip to Bountiful. Out of The Color Purple’s 11 Academy Award nominations, the film didn’t
Won for: Effie White, Dreamgirls (2006)
We can’t make a comparison here, since Dreamgirls was Hudson’s debut film. There was also much chagrin
about the former American Idol contestant beating out actresses like Little
Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and
Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. Still, Hudson’s soul singing,
soul-stirring performance as girl group member Effie White was strong enough to earn
her the Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Image Award, and SAG Award in 2006.
Won for: Mary, Precious (2009)
If there was any role that Mo’Nique would win an Oscar for,
it was this one. Prior to Precious in
2009, she was known primarily for her standup and roles in comedy films like Soul
Plane (2004) and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (2008). She also took a hiatus from films
since then, with her first major role since Precious
being Blackbird in 2014.
Won for: Minny Jackson, The Help (2011)
Going out on a limb to say that her best role is yet to
come. At the time, The Help was decried as another case of “black people can only win
awards when they’re playing maids and butlers.” But before winning the Oscar,
Spencer spent about 15 years as a character actor in minor film and TV roles,
in everything from Being John Malkovich to Big Momma’s House. Now that she’s
been attached to higher profile projects, there’s a solid chance that a leading
actress Oscar is in her future.