Hear Us Out is a semi-regular column in which guest contributors and editors venture forth a take that’s sure to get fans talking.
On February 29, 1940, in the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, Jezebel actress Fay Bainter presented Hattie McDaniel with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel was awarded Hollywood’s highest honor for playing Mammy, a slave to protagonist Scarlett O’Hara, in the big-screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. In her introduction, Bainter remarked that this award was more than a gold statuette: “It opens the doors of this room to embrace the whole of America, an America… that pays tribute to those who give it their best regardless of creed, race, or color.” Accepting the award, McDaniel said it was her sincere hope to “remain a credit to her race and the motion picture industry.”
McDaniel was the first female African American Oscar nominee and winner, and has been cited as a trailblazer by the likes of Halle Berry and Mo’Nique in acceptance speeches for their more recent Academy Awards. But watching John Cho and Issa Rae read the nominations for the 2020 Oscars in January, as it sank in that only one African American actor would be nominated in the four major acting categories – and that person would be the only actor of color more broadly to be nominated – one began to think of McDaniel and wonder, “What would Hattie think of where we are today?” Would she be glad to see Cynthia Erivo become the 12th Black actress ever to be nominated for a lead performance for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in Harriet? Or would she be saddened to see Erivo is only the 12th, and to learn that it had taken five decades after her own win for another Black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, to repeat the feat for a supporting role?
And what would she think when she found that our newest Black female nominee is being honored for playing a slave – a rebellious, inspiring historical figure, true, but a slave nonetheless – just as Hattie had been honored for playing a slave 80 years ago?
It should come as little surprise that even in a year populated by incredible and critically lauded performances by Black women – Lupita Nyong’o playing a mother/monster in Us; Alfre Woodard as a death-row warden in Clemency; Octavia Spencer as a high-school teacher in Luce; and so many more – it was Erivo’s rousing portrayal of Tubman that gained awards-season traction and ultimately an Oscar nomination. From 1939 to 2020, there have been 35 performances by Black women nominated for an Academy Award; of that 35, some 21 actresses were nominated for portraying a maid, a woman living in abject poverty, or a slave.
There has been a bias, or a tendency, intentional or not, to recognize portrayals of suffering – of slavery and its devastating after-effects – over the more rich array of roles other non-Black actresses are frequently rewarded for. This Oscars season feels like the right time to take a beat and question why this is and what the impact might be.
Each year’s Oscar story is different for a host of reasons beyond the actual performances that are nominated – different storylines emerge, the voting makeup differs, the competition mix is always unique, campaigns and release dates have their impacts. And this year is no different, with 10 strong and acclaimed performances up for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. But it’s hard to look past glaring incidences where a Black actress has been snubbed, or failed to gain any serious awards-season buzz, for a role almost identical to one a white actress has been nominated and even won for. The argument that it is a certain type of role that is ignored for women across the board just doesn’t pan out.
Consider Alfre Woodard in Clemency this year. The previously Oscar-nominated Woodard (1983, Cross Creek) was considered an instant Oscar hopeful among many from the moment they witnessed her performance as a death row warden grappling with a crisis of conscience at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Critics lauded her work, notably Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, whose review of Clemency read like an editorial endorsement for her Oscar campaign: “Woodard, who has won four Emmys out of 18 nominations, is one of the best actors on the planet. Shockingly, she has only been nominated for an Oscar once… It would be a case of blatant neglect to ignore her artistry in the dramatic powerhouse that is Clemency… Like the movie she inhabits with every fiber of her being, Woodard is some kind of miracle.”
And yet, as the year went on, the performance largely failed to capture voters’ imaginations at the various guilds and other awards. This professional, middle-class character, struggling with the kinds of challenges white nominees’ characters frequently do – a crumbling marriage, growing alcohol dependency – didn’t connect. Back in 1995, Susan Sarandon was Oscar-nominated, and won, for a similar role – her character was a nun who formed a bond with a death-row inmate. Were the films in which they featured so different? Tim Robbins was an accomplished actor before he directed Dead Man Walking, but this was merely his second feature, just as Clemency was writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s sophomore film. Sarandon was riding a wave of recent nominations and industry acclaim, but it would be hard to make the case she had as much of an “it’s her time” pitch as Woodard, who’s been acting for more than 40 years and has won four Emmys in addition to her Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Was Lupita Nyong’o’s dual turn as “Red”/Adelaide in Us that much different from Natalie Portman’s Jekyll/Hyde performance in Black Swan, hailed as a landmark and rewarded with the actress’s first Oscar? Both required physical feats to achieve – Portman’s ballerina diet and training; Nyong’o’s intense vocal work – and both set the zeitgeist alight, but only one managed to bust through the genre barrier to capture voters’ attention. (Notably, Nyong’o’s previous Oscar win was for playing a slave who is raped and tormented in 12 Years A Slave.)
Speaking of genre breakouts: Was Tiffany Haddish’s turn in Girls Trip so different from Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids? Was grapefruitin’ any less iconic than McCarthy’s airplane antics? It is all subjective, of course, but the point remains: performances in the same space, in the same types of films, seem to rarely cut through if they’re given by Black actresses. If we could mark one exception it would Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning turn in Ghost, but it’s worth noting what The Color Purple actress said when she accepted the trophy in 1991: She was not the filmmakers’ first choice, she had to fight for the role, and it was star Patrick Swayze stating he wanted her that finally secured her the part. And she was already an Oscar-nominated actress – for playing a victim of abuse – at the time.
What is an award-worthy performance for a Black actress? Viola Davis received her first Oscar nomination for Doubt, playing a mother whose son is abused by the Church (and her abusive husband); she got her second for playing a maid in The Help; she would win for playing a housewife in Fences. Oscar-winner Halle Berry’s character was living in abject poverty in Monster’s Ball; Regina King, who won Best Supporting Actress for playing family matriarch Sharon in If Beale Street Could Talk, was thankfully just poor. Mo’Nique played a verbally abusive mother who chose her boyfriend – who was sexually abusing her daughter – over her own child in Precious. The performance resonated so much with voters the comedienne famously didn’t even need to campaign for the award.
Meanwhile, Angela Bassett campaigned to the fullest and did everything an Oscar hopeful is expected to do and still came up short when she played Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It; Pam Grier in Jackie Brown was also deemed unworthy of Oscar consideration, despite her celebrated comeback role with one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino. Grier’s is an understated role in an ensemble cast, but that didn’t keep her similarly understated co-star Robert Forster from an Oscar nomination or, years later, Amy Adams from a nomination when she played a wise con-artist in American Hustle.
The most accomplished Black actresses of our time – Woodard, Spencer, Cicely Tyson, Goldberg, Nyong’o, and even Oprah – all had to make a stop as a maid or slave on their way to the Oscar stage. And what of the winners? Of the nine Black women who have actually won Academy Awards, only three – Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, and Regina King – can boast that they broke the mold, playing in order: a con artist, a scorned singer, and mother whose son was accused of rape.
The numbers don’t lie: A Black actress’s best chance at being nominated for and winning an Oscar lies in playing a maid or a slave – and, at the very least, making a mark as a maid or slave before moving to a different Oscar-winning role. Is that progress? Meanwhile, the road to Oscar victory for some non-Black winners over the last few decades has included playing a waitress falling in love, an inspirational football mom, a drunken socialite, a witty widow, an FBI agent, a boxer, and an elderly rich lady just taking a ride. It’s not that any one of these was not deserving, simply that they illustrate that the path and potential for white actresses aspiring to the Oscars stage seems extraordinarily wide, while the path for Black actresses seems as narrow as an Olympic gymnastics balance beam – stepping just an inch or so off means you falter.
This phenomenon is not unique to Black actresses: If you are an Asian actress, your chances of a nomination are even slimmer, and still to this day, more white actresses have won for playing Asians than Asian women have for playing their own identity. And Latinx actresses have not fared much better, with only two wins out of 10 nominations.
What is the impact when certain narratives, and certain roles, are so heavily favored by the Academy and other awards voting groups, particularly when those roles home in on poverty and subjugation? The effect is insidious. If you are a young Black actress in Hollywood today and given a script with “Oscar potential” – say, one playing a historical figure like Shirley Chisholm (the first Black woman to run for president) or Mae Carol Jemison (the first Black female astronaut in space) – you could take the role, be lauded by critics, become a hit with audiences, and yet you would do so with the full knowledge that it will likely come up short of consideration for your profession’s highest honor. The safer bet now, as it ever was, is to play a slave.
And what is the impact of that calculus and its repetition? We will continue to see a certain type of role and character repeatedly rewarded, and the cycle will go on.
These tales of slaves and maids and more are incredibly valuable and relevant stories to tell and lives to portray, and the performances – Erivo’s included – can be mind-blowingly good. But they are not the only stories worth being told or the only characters worthy of recognition. The world of ideas shrinks incredibly when we don’t see the full array of the Black experience represented and rewarded, whether that be the life of a 1950s maid or a modern-day prison warden or a school teacher or an astronaut or a twentysomething looking to party hard in New Orleans. Or the life of Aretha Franklin, whom Jennifer Hudson will play on the big screen this year, and Erivo herself will play on TV.
Hattie McDaniel could never dream of playing a megastar musician. She won her Oscar for playing a maid, and made a living playing similar roles. She’s drawn criticism for taking so many “Mammy” jobs, but countered that it was her only real option for regular work at the time. She famously said it was far better to make “Seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than earn seven a day being a maid.” In that sense, some progress has been made. The variety of roles available to actresses of color may still be limited, but it’s vaster than it ever has been. It would be great to see that better reflected on future nominations mornings.