The 74th Academy Awards in 2002 were arguably the ‘blackest’ Oscar ceremony in Hollywood history. Whoopi Goldberg hosted for the fourth time, Sidney Poitier received a lifetime achievement honor, Denzel Washington became the first black performer to win best actor since Poitier and, most poignantly, Halle Berry became the first (and so far, only) African-American woman to win best actress for her role in Monster’s Ball. Ten years later, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have scored Oscar nominations for their leading and supporting roles (respectively) in The Help and are poised to make history all over again.
After years of apparent snubs and protests over the lack of representation of minority actors and actresses at Hollywood’s most prestigious awards — the 2002 Oscars were seen as a real turning point. The emotional sense of history was not lost on the viewers or stars that night.
“This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me — Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox…and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened,” Halle Berry said in her emotional best actress acceptance speech.
In the decades which preceded that ceremony, only 33 black actors had been nominated in major acting categories since the Academy Awards began in 1929. In the decade since Berry and Washington’s barrier-breaking evening, 19 African-Americans have received major acting nominations and six have won.
Arguably, Hollywood has showed vast improvement since the days when black actors held their own ‘black Oscars’ ceremony to honor their best performances since the Academy Awards so frequently overlooked them. This event was reportedly called off in 2007, with black Hollywood royalty feeling as though they had finally received acceptance from the mainstream Oscars.
Still, the Academy Awards has come up short when it comes to recognizing black actresses in its leading category. Since Halle Berry’s win, only one black actress — Gabourey Sidibe — has scored a nomination for best actress. This year, not only is Viola Davis a nominee, she’s also a frontrunner for the win — her closest competition being perennial nominee Meryl Streep.
If Davis is victorious, it could finally fulfill the promise of the 2002 awards for African-Americans. Davis herself recently pointed out in an Entertainment Weekly interview that Whoopi Goldberg is the only black actress to ever return to the Academy Awards with a second nomination.
That is, until now.
“That’s only because there aren’t a lot of roles out there that are going to bring you back,” said Davis. “Say if you have two great roles for an African-American actress in a year — one actress can cover it. So if there’s five really good black actresses out there, and that one actress gets it all, then the other four can sit for the next three years.”
Halle Berry was already accepting a Razzie award (a parody award for the year’s worst performance) a couple years after she won best actress. Mo’Nique has yet to appear in a follow-up to her winning role in Precious. And Jennifer Hudson has been more prominent in her Weight Watchers ads than in films since her best supporting actress win for Dreamgirls.
Whether she wins or loses, Davis has set a positive precedent. Her nomination is proof that her acceptance at Hollywood’s most prestigious event is no fluke.
Now that black actors are routinely in the mix at the Oscars, black directors, writers, costumers and technicians are the next areas in serious need of diversity. To date, there have been only two African-Americans nominated for best director, and blacks have not fared much better in some of the less glamorous categories.
The Oscars have come a long way, but they still need a little Help when it comes to representing the entirety of their audience.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard