Accessibility links

For Black Actresses, Few Oscar-Worthy Roles

  • Penelope Poulou

Only one African-American has won best actress

The box office hit “The Help” won an Oscar for best supporting actress. But Viola Davis, the film's lead actress, was passed over. In fact, only one African- American woman has ever won best actress in a leading role.

And that has highlighted the lack of award-winning roles for African-Americans, especially women.

Hattie McDaniels was the first African-American to ever win an Oscar. She was named best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy, a slave, in the 1939 epic "Gone with the Wind."

Since then, African-American actresses have gone on to play a variety of roles. But playwright Murray Horwitz argues many of them present African-Americans as victims.

“Once you’re a victim, you can’t be a man, a woman, a child who may be a brat, or a woman who may be cheating on her husband, or a man who might be a noble pillar of the community," he says. "It’s just ‘Oh, it’s them’ and that’s something I think that, as writers and filmmakers, we have to avoid.”

In 1991, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Oda Mae Brown, a psychic, in the supernatural drama "Ghost." But critics argued that her character tapped into the stereotype of an African American con artist.

In 2001, Halle Berry became the first African-American to win an Oscar for best actress in the drama "Monster's Ball." Halle Berry is the only African-American to have won the Oscar for best actress, for "Monster's Ball" in 2001.

Halle Berry is the only African-American to have won the Oscar for best actress, for "Monster's Ball" in 2001.

She played the wife of an executed convict. Horwitz says Halle Berry’s role as Leticia Musgrove, who develops a relationship with her executed husband’s white guard, deviated from the norm.

“Was Halle Berry's character in "Monster's Ball" sympathetic? Sure, but I don't know if you want to have dinner with her," say Horwitz. "So, I think one of the great victories has been the presence, and I don’t want to say increased presence because statistically it goes up and down, but the presence of African-Americans in roles where race does not completely define the character, and we need a great actor to inhabit that role.”

According to Horwitz, layered roles for African-American actresses have been rare. Most fit the traditional niche.

Like the abusive mother in Lee Daniels' 2009 drama "Precious." Mo’Nique won an Oscar for that supporting role.

The film, based on a novel, offers a bleak portrait of a teenage girl called Precious. Daniels says his film is true and its truth should not be forgotten.

“Do we dare show African-Americans in this light?" says Daniels. "Especially with Obama being president? How dare you tell this truth? How dare you tell this truth? How dare you read this truth? And I was taken aback by the audaciousness of it all. The audaciousness of the book.”

"Precious," although dark, is uplifting. In the end, Precious betters her life.

Daniels says that's a message not only for African-Americans but for Americans as a whole. Octavia Spencer accepts the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role for “The Help” during the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in Hollywood.

Octavia Spencer accepts the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role for “The Help” during the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in Hollywood.

“We come in all different colors. We are colored people. Colored people. So, we have athletes, we have drug dealers, we have doctors, we have murderers, we are people.”

At this year's Oscars, Octavia Spencer walked away with the golden statue for best supporting actress for her role as Minnie in "The Help, about a maid in 1960s Mississippi.

The actress says the role was real. “I had to model her after someone, and I modeled her after my mom."

Halle Berry remains the only African-American woman to have won best actress in a leading role.

And that begs the question: Should African-American actors wait for race-neutral roles? There aren't many of those. And where will the winning roles come from? Who will write them?

XS
SM
MD
LG