In the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, black actors and actresses have rarely taken home the coveted Oscar.
Best supporting actress has had the best showing of all the major categories for African-Americans, with five total victories since Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Oscar for 1939’s Gone With the Wind.
Despite a fierce competition with Hollywood It-girl Jennifer Lawrence, most prognosticators see Nyong’o as the new frontrunner, following high-profile wins at the Critic’s Choice, SAG and numerous other critics’ awards. For a first-time film actress, an Oscar win would be a tremendous achievement that her peers would surely envy.
And yet, we’ve seen this song and dance before.
We’ve seen African-American actresses play an earnest (or in this case victimized) woman of color that seems tailor-made for critical recognition and ride a wave of success to an Academy Award nomination, and sometimes victory. If Hollywood has a category that could be accused of tokenism, it very well could be best supporting actress.
And when black actresses have triumphed, more often than not, their careers do not appear to get the traditional boost that typically follows an Oscar victory.
Hattie McDaniel’s triumph is remembered now more as a historical footnote and sad commentary on the stereotypical roles she was forced to play than the beginning of a burgeoning career. Whoopi Goldberg, who won for Ghost in 1990, was already an established comedian and stage star when she took home the Academy Award — she is an exception to the rule.
However, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson and even the lone black female best actress winner, Halle Berry, have not fared quite as well.
Mo’Nique, who swept every precursor award with her powerful out-of-character performance in Precious, has yet to make another film since her win (a rumored biopic of Hattie McDaniel remains rumored). Hudson was also largely absent from the big screen and her two most recent turns, while well reviewed, went largely unseen.
Berry was briefly an A-list draw at the box office following her historic 2002 win for the controversial melodrama Monster’s Ball, but a series of flops and messy public personal spats have relegated her to the B-list at best. She’s now planning a comeback on a television show produced by Steven Spielberg.
Octavia Spencer, who won for The Help in 2012, has proved a little more resilient, appearing in an acclaimed supporting role in this past year’s criminally under-seen Fruitvale Station. She too was considering a jump to the small screen with a Murder, She Wrote reboot, but the project was scrapped.
So where does that leave Lupita Nyong’o?
She has won a legion of fans outside of her film work for her glamorous appearances on the red carpet and her infectiously sweet persona during talk show appearances. In an industry still steeped in sexism, Nyong’o’s gorgeous looks may give her a leg up on some of her previous peers who made it into the Oscar winner’s circle but were not traditional Hollywood beauties. And few would argue that her acting chops aren’t more impressive than Berry’s.
Her next role is a small one but in a likely blockbuster, Liam Neeson’s action film Non-Stop, which opens this weekend. After that, her slate is empty but it seems like the sky is the limit for this exceptional and charismatic actress if she can avoid being pigeonholed and type-cast.
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