It’s getting better for black women at Oscars, but not enough

Black women have been notoriously underrepresented at the Oscars in the past. These days they’re doing better, but Hollywood still has a long way to go. Consider: the number of black actresses with multiple nominations could double this year, but no black woman has ever been nominated for Best Director.

In 2011, “The Help” star Viola Davis followed Whoopi Goldberg to become only the second black actress in history to be nominated at the Oscars twice. This year, with less fanfare, two others could achieve the same feat: Oprah Winfrey, a 1985 nominee for “The Color Purple,” is a virtual lock to be nominated again for “The Butler,” and Octavia Spencer, who won for “The Help,” is a contender again for “Fruitvale Station.”

That sudden uptick is consistent with Oscar trends as a whole. In 85 years, out of the 28 black nominees for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, 12 (43%) have come since 2000.

It’s even more dramatic when you consider winners: out of the six, four were awarded since 2000.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor of either gender to be recognized, winning Best Supporting Actress for “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, but after that there was a 51-year drought before Goldberg became the second female winner in 1990 for “Ghost.”

In 2001, Halle Berry was the first black woman to win Best Actress, and three others have won Supporting Actress since then: Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls,” 2006), Mo’Nique (“Precious,” 2009) and Spencer in 2011.

But the picture gets more depressing if you look behind the scenes. No black women have ever been nominated for directing or producing. Only one has been nominated for writing (Suzanne de Passe for “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972).

Black women have had limited opportunities behind the camera, which is a problem in Hollywood as a whole, but the Oscars could be doing better than they are.

For instance, last year Ava DuVernay‘s “Middle of Nowhere” received acclaim, as well as wins at the Gotham Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, and the Sundance Film Festival, but it never got any traction in the Oscar race.

Neither did Adepero Oduye, so effective in 2011 as a teenage lesbian discovering her sexuality in “Pariah.”

Going back further, I remember that “Eve’s Bayou,” the great 1997 film by Kasi Lemmons, earned well-deserved recognition from the Critics’ Choice Awards, Chicago critics, the National Board of Review, and the Spirit Awards. Roger Ebert named it the best film of the year and wrote in his review, “If it is not nominated for Academy Awards, then the academy is not paying attention.”

They weren’t.

It’s disappointing that nowadays black actresses are often relegated to whatever Madea movie Tyler Perry is making that particular week. But even though Perry is hardly a prestige director, at least he’s writing roles for actors like Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, and Sanaa Lathan. Any or all of those women could have earned Oscar nominations or wins by now if Hollywood were more inclusive.

Will this year’s Oscars be a step in the right direction? Several of 2013’s top contenders come from black or female points of view, and this year’s Supporting Actress race may include a majority of black nominees. But no Best Picture contenders are focused on black women, unlike three of the last four years: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012, “The Help” in 2011, and “Precious” in 2009.

That’s not to say the Oscars are necessarily racist or sexist if they don’t nominate films starring black women. The fact is, you can’t nominate movies that aren’t being made.

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