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Historic Moments For Black Actors At The Academy Awards

February 18th, 2022Historic Moments For Black Actors At The Academy Awards

We’re just a few weeks into the new year, and every film buff knows that that means the Academy Awards® aren’t far away. It was just recently that the Oscar® nominations for the 2022 ceremony were announced, and even though we’ve found ourselves in a year where four Black actors have received nominations, there’s still a very long way to go when it comes to the Oscars recognizing both the achievements of actors of color and films by people of color. With that, though, there have been numerous historic moments for Black actors at the Academy Awards, and we’re going to spotlight some of them for you right now!

Hattie McDaniel’s Historic Nomination And Win

In 1940, 12 years into the celebration of film, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person nominated for an Academy Award when she received her first and only Oscar nod for her supporting role as Mammy in 1939’s GONE WITH THE WIND. McDaniel won, also becoming the first Black person to win an Oscar. It would be a full decade before another Black actor was nominated for their performance, with Ethel Waters nabbing a nod for her supporting part in 1949’s PINKY.

Dorothy Dandridge’s Historic Nomination

It wasn’t until 1954, for the 27th Academy Awards, that we got to see Dorothy Dandridge become the first Black actress nominated for Best Actress, for her titular role in the musical drama CARMEN JONES. Dandridge didn’t win, and it would take 18 years for Black actresses to be nominated in this category again. When that time came around, though, in 1972’s 45th ceremony, there was another first when both Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nominated for their respective leading parts in LADY SINGS THE BLUES and SOUNDER.

Sidney Poitier’s Historic Nominations And Win

Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor nominated and the first Black actor to win an Oscar. No one can deny that the late Sidney Poitier was one of the greatest talents we’ve ever seen on the big screen, and he managed to breakthrough for the 31st Oscars in 1959, when he garnered his first Best Actor nomination — and the first nomination in the category for a Black actor — for the 1958 drama, THE DEFIANT ONES. The film saw him star as one of two escaped prisoners, who are on the run while being shackled together, opposite Tony Curtis. Even though Poitier didn’t win that award, he did win Best Actor in 1963, becoming the first Black actor to do so, for playing a traveling handyman welcomed by a group of German Catholic nuns in LILIES OF THE FIELD.

Sounder’s Historic Nominations

While we’ll discuss the historic night that was the Oscars of 2002 in just a bit, we need to go back 30 years before that to talk about when SOUNDER became the first film with nominations for both Best Actress and Best Actor that went to Black performers. This also happened in 1972, when — as mentioned earlier — Cicely Tyson’s Best Actress nod for the movie was joined by Paul Winfield’s Best Actor nomination for the same film, where they portrayed the heads of a family of poor sharecroppers during the Depression. These dual leading performance nominations have only occurred twice since 1972; for 1993’s WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT and for 2020’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.

The 2002 Oscar Ceremony

Many film fans will likely remember — or have at least heard of — what happened at the 2002 Oscar ceremony, as it was a major night for historic moments when it came to Black actors, with three big things happening. To start, after only six other Black actresses had been nominated for Best Actress — across 73 previous years —, Halle Berry finally won the award for her part as Leticia Musgrove in the drama, MONSTER’S BALL. The same night, Denzel Washington, who’d won a Best Supporting Actor award for 1989’s GLORY and been nominated three other times, won Best Actor for playing Alonzo Harris in 2001’s cop drama, TRAINING DAY. This marked the first time two Black actors won Oscars in the same year.

The ceremony also saw Sidney Poitier, who, again, had been nominated twice and won once, receive an honorary Oscar.

Denzel Washington Becomes The Most Nominated Black Actor

We all know that Denzel Washington is a powerhouse actor, and by 2016 his Academy Award nominations were starting to fully show that, when he became the most nominated Black actor in Academy Awards history with his Best Actor nod for FENCES. As of 2022, Washington still leads the nominations among any Black actor, and now has nine such accolades —plus one nomination for Best Picture— including his nod for leading the 2021 film, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, with his co-star in FENCES now holding a different Oscar title…

Viola Davis Becomes The Most Nominated Black Actress

With her Best Actress nod for MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM in 2020, Viola Davis became the Black actress with the most nominations in Academy Award history, after three previous nods, which include her Best Actress win for FENCES. Davis is also the first Black actress ever to get two Best Actress nominations, as her first was for THE HELP in 2011.

While there’s still quite a ways to go for the Oscars to more fully recognize what Black actors and actresses, as well as other people of color, bring to the world of film, some strides have been made across the institution’s 94 years. And, we’re all just as eager as you to see what will come of the 2022 Academy Award ceremony, which airs live on ABC, Sunday, March 27 at 8pm EST!