The Academy Award, for all the criticism the process of awarding them may receive, is the most prestigious recognition a film actor can hope for. Winning one signifies reaching the pinnacle of the acting profession and sets a performer apart from their peers. It means you are among the best, and your talent and abilities should be in high demand. Unless you’re a black woman.
As counter-intuitive at sounds, not winning an Oscar is probably the best shot at longevity as a black woman has in Hollywood. There haven’t been many statues handed out to black actresses, a shame in and of itself, but of those who have been fortunate enough to see their work honored by the industry, a win on Hollywood’s biggest night has been the equivalent of winning MVP of the NFL Pro Bowl. They may have been great, but hardly anyone watched and no one remembers that it even happened.
While it’s true that black actors, regardless of gender, haven’t fared particularly well after an Oscar win (can you say Cuba Gooding Jr.?), the men have gotten a better deal out of it than the woman, by far.
After Hattie McDaniel made history by being the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for her 1939 portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she spent the rest of her career not just being ignored by the Academy, but essentially reprising that role, playing the maid over and over again, across different mediums. She gave voice to the radio show Beulah, and before falling ill with breast cancer filled the same role on the television series after Ethel Waters stepped down. There was little room for professional ambition, as the roles available to black women at that time were severely limited.
Decades later, black women are more than just maids, but similar struggles remain. Halle Berry became the first black actress to win an Oscar in the best actress category for her 2001 film Monster’s Ball. Since then she’s played a Bond girl, Catwoman, and an X-Men. Her most challenging and critically acclaimed role since the Oscar win, Frankie and Alice, wasn’t widely released and didn’t gain much traction during awards season.
Berry has seen more headlines about her personal life than her work, which may have been true for years before her historic Oscar win, but now that seems to be the extent of her public career. Mo’Nique, who spent much of her career starring in such lowbrow fare as Soul Plane and Phat Girlz, not only hasn’t done a film since her best supporting actress Oscar win in 2010 for her role in Precious, but she also saw her late night talk show on BET be cancelled last year. It’s true that she has stated that she wants to do a Hattie McDaniel biopic, and owns the rights to her story, but thus far the Oscar win hasn’t translated to more big screen success.
The most successful black actress to win an Oscar has been Whoopi Goldberg. She has done extremely well, as one of the few entertainers to achieve the elusive EGOT, winning each an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. Though she has experienced unprecedented success, her acting roles have slowed down a bit in recent years as she has devoted more time to being a co-host on the daytime talk show The View.
Viola Davis could be the one to buck the trend. Nominated this year for best actress for her role in the controversial film The Help, she’s only the second black actress to receive multiple Oscar nominations, tying Goldberg with two. She’s the favorite going in to Sunday’s ceremony, up against the venerable Meryl Streep, but if history serves a win could be her career death knell. Perhaps it’s overstated, but there does to appear to be some type of curse cast upon black women that win Oscars.
The challenge will be in finding quality roles. Davis knows the odds she is up against, as black women continue to fight for the type of representation befitting their talents and humanity. She shows an eagerness to bring to life fully human black women, and provided the opportunity she undoubtedly will, and possibly push the industry to recognize her immense talents once again.
And unlike, say Jennifer Hudson who won for her role in Dreamgirls, she is well known for her acting chops and has a solid resume behind her that shows her range and depth. She is uniquely situated to start a new tradition of black actresses winning Oscars and going on to not only have fruitful careers, but change the way Hollywood works altogether.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith