Oscars: A look back at some early, pioneering roles for black actors
Nearly three-quarters of a century before the film “12 Years a Slave,” a scathing indictment of slavery, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel won a supporting actress Oscar for playing the loyal slave Mammy in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”
McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar and though her performance was beloved and paved the way for other minority actors, it was not without its detractors at the time. There was a similar reaction eight years later when James Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s live action-animated musical “Song of the South.” The NAACP and other civil rights groups criticized the performances and the films for presenting stereotyped and negative images of blacks.
Adilifu Nama, associate professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, said McDaniel’s win was a significant achievement but one “loaded with a lot of political and racial issues given that the film was the classic archetype of the Mammy. The role is fundamentally a subservient role and is part of a film that is a Southern racial fantasy.”
Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win a competitive Oscar when he picked up the lead actor Academy Award for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.” Poitier’s win paved the way for other black actors and actresses in more recent decades, including Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Morgan Freeman.
Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts, believes that Poitier’s win “marks a major transition” away from the archetype roles.” But to Boyd many of the roles before and even after Poitier’s breakthrough provided only a limited view of the black experience in America.
“The entirety of the history of African Americans in Hollywood has been problematic and I think, in some ways, still is,” Boyd said. “A lot of people looked at those movies as sort of an authentic representation of what African Americans were like. It shaped the way African Americans were perceived.”
This Oscar season has been a strong one for black-oriented films and performers, led by director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed “12 Years a Slave.” McQueen is nominated for best director and if he wins he would be the first black filmmaker to win that award. (He’s only the third black filmmaker to be nominated following John Singleton for 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood” and Lee Daniels for 2009’s “Precious.”)
Two of the harrowing drama’s stars — Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o — are also up for Oscars in the lead actor and supporting actress categories. And Somali-born Barkhad Abdi is in contention for a supporting actor Oscar for “Captain Phillips.”
A surprisingly large number of black performers helped pave the way with Oscar-winning and -nominated performances from McDaniel through Diahann Carroll, who earned her lead actress nomination in the 1974 comedy “Claudine.” Besides being limited to certain stereotyped roles like maids and servants, a number of them faced real-life prejudice as well.
Here’s a look those early pioneers.
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952): “Gone With the Wind” (1939)
In her tearful Oscar acceptance speech, McDaniel said: “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.” But just a few months earlier, she and the film’s other African American actors were barred from attending the premiere of the 1939 film in racially segregated Atlanta.
McDaniel consistently ran into criticism for perpetuating negative stereotypes in her role choices, which led her to say at one point, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
McDaniel, who found success on the radio in the late 1940s in the comedy “Beulah,” died in 1952. She wanted to be buried at Hollywood Memorial Park, now known as Hollywood Forever, but it had a restricted policy. There is now a memorial to her at the cemetery.
James Baskett (1904-48) “Song of the South” (1947)
The singer-dancer-actor, who played lawyer Gabby Gibson on the radio in “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” won an honorary Oscar for “his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to children of the world, in Walt Disney’s ‘Song of the South.’” Baskett also introduced the Academy Award-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
The film, which is set in the South after the Civil War, raised the ire of civil rights groups such as the NAACP, which decried “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts.” The last time Disney released the film was 1986.
Baskett, who like McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta, died a few months after receiving the Oscar from heart disease at the age of 44.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977) “Pinky” (1949)
Waters was already a legendary singer — she introduced “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club — when she earned a supporting actress nomination for Elia Kazan’s 1949 drama “Pinky.” She played Dicey, the warm-hearted Southern grandmother of a young woman (Jeanne Crain) who had passed for white in the North. Bosley Crowther wrote of Waters in the New York Times, “by playing the girl’s old grandmother in a deeply benign and wistful way Ethel Waters endows this gentle lady with tremendous warmth and appeal.”
Dorothy Dandridge (1922-65) “Carmen Jones” (1954)
One of cinema’s great beauties, the singer-dancer-actress was the first African American to earn a lead actress Oscar nomination for her riveting turn in “Carmen Jones,” Otto Preminger’s 1954 reworking of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Dandridge made only a handful of films after “Carmen Jones” before her death from an accidental barbiturate overdose in 1965 at the age of 42.
Juanita Moore (1914-2014) “Imitation of Life” (1959)
The former dancer earned a supporting actor nomination for Douglas Sirk’s lush 1959 melodrama “Imitation of Life,” based on Fannie Hurst’s novel, as a maid whose light-skinned daughter rejects her and her black roots: “If, by accident, we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognize me.”
Though she appeared on TV and in such films as 1973’s “The Mack” and was involved in theater in L.A., the nomination didn’t open many doors. She told The Times in 2000 that she didn’t work for a year after “Imitation of Life” because casting directors believed she wouldn’t want to play any more servant roles. “What can you do?” she said. “They’re not going to pay a lot of money for carrying a tray. That’s all we did in movies back then.”
Sidney Poitier (1927-) “The Defiant Ones” (1958); “Lilies of the Field” (1963)
The legendary actor and pioneering film director received a lead actor nomination for 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” which revolved around two escaped prisoners — one black, one white (Tony Curtis) — who are shackled together. Poitier won the lead actor Oscar for 1963’s charming “Lilies of the Field,” as an itinerant handyman who builds a chapel for some East German nuns.
At the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony, Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for his “extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.”
Beah Richards (1920-2000) “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)
The veteran film and television actress received a supporting actress nomination for 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for her poignant turn as the mother of an earnest young physician (Poitier) who must deal with the fact that her son’s fiancee (Katharine Houghton) is white.
Rupert Crosse (1927-73) “The Reivers” (1969)
A member of the Actors Studio, who starred in John Cassavetes’ first film, 1959’s “Shadows,” and his 1962 drama, “Too Late Blues,” Crosse earned a supporting actor nomination for his funny turn opposite Steve McQueen in the bucolic 1969 adaptation of “The Reivers,” directed by Mark Rydell. Crosse starred with Don Adams in the 1971-72 TV comedy “Partners” and died of cancer at the age of 45.
James Earl Jones (1931-) “The Great White Hope” (1970)
The Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor and the voice of “Star Wars’” Darth Vader earned a lead actor nomination reprising his Broadway triumph in 1970’s “The Great White Hope” as a black boxer who keeps winning over white opponents in the years prior to World War I. Three years ago, he earned an honorary Academy Award for “his legacy of consistent excellence and uncommon versatility.”
Paul Winfield (1939-2004) “Sounder” (1972)
The dynamic Emmy Award-winning character actor who worked in film, theater and TV (“Picket Fences,” “King,” “Roots: The Next Generation”) earned a lead actor nomination for 1972’s family drama “Sounder,” in which he played the loving sharecropper father Nathan Lee Morgan.
Cicely Tyson (1933-) “Sounder” (1972)
The legendary African American actress, who earned a Tony last year for “A Trip to Bountiful” and is best known for her Emmy Award-winning turn in the landmark 1974 TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” received a lead actress nomination for “Sounder” as the resilient Rebecca Morgan, the wife of a sharecropper in Louisiana, circa early 1930s, who tries to keep her family together despite tremendous odds.
Diana Ross (1944-) “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
The chart-topping singer who came to fame as the lead singer of the Supremes, earned a lead actress nomination for her 1972 film debut in “Lady Sings the Blues,” playing legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Diahann Carroll (1935-) “Claudine” (1974)
Carroll actually made her film debut in 1954’s “Carmen Jones” and was an established recording artist, Broadway star (“No Strings”) and groundbreaking sitcom star (“Julia”) when she earned a lead actress nomination for the charming 1974 romantic comedy “Claudine.” She played the mother of six living in Harlem who finds love with a dashing garbage collector (James Earl Jones).
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.