When the Oscar nominations were announced last month the big story was diversity. Across the board it was a banner year for the academy with nominations for performers and below-the-line artists being much more inclusive. With the acting nominations, it was a first time for black actors recognized in all four categories. The bulk of those nominations are in Best Supporting Actress. It is the first time that three of the five acting nominees are black: three-time nominee Viola Davis (“Fences”), first-time nominee Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), and past Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“ ”). Davis is the frontrunner to win, and that’s fitting since the majority of acting wins for black actors have come from this category with six wins out of 21 nominations to date.
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For her iconic performance as Mammy in the classic “Gone With the Wind,” Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to be nominated for and win an Oscar. It took a decade for a second black actress to be up for an Oscar nomination. That honor went to jazz legend Ethel Waters for her performance in the drama “Pinky.” After her came Supporting Actress nominees Juanita Moore (“Imitation of Life”) in 1960, Beah Richards (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) in 1968, and Alfre Woodard (“Cross Creek”) in 1984.
In 1986, “The Color Purple” netted nominations for both Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey, making it the second time that two black performers were nominated in the same category. The first time was in the Best Actress category in 1973 when both Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues”) and Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) made the cut. In 1991 Whoopi Goldberg became only the second black actress to win an Oscar for her comedic performance as supernatural medium Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost.” And in 1996 Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”) became the first black British actress to be nominated for an acting Oscar. Her nomination was the last for a black actress in the 20th century.
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But since the 21st century nominations and wins have been far more consistent in this category. In the 2000s, the nominees were Queen Latifah (“Chicago”) in 2003, Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) in 2005, Ruby Dee (“American Gangster”) in 2008, and Viola Davis (“Doubt”) and Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) in 2009. Jennifer Hudson became the third black actress to be awarded here in 2007 for her film debut in the big screen adaptation of the musical “Dreamgirls.”
And the 2010s have been undeniably strong. Mo’Nique (“Precious”) won in 2010, then Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) in 2012 and Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years A Slave”) in 2014 all won on their first try. Out of the three competing this year, it is Viola Davis — the most nominated black actress of all time with three — that will most likely prevail on her second try in this category and join a strong company of actresses.
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