Oscar 2005: Snow White–No Black Actresses

The position of black actresses in a leading role is even worse than that of their male counterparts. No black femme stands a chance to be nominated for Best Actress, and only one, Thandie Newton in “Crash,” may be nominated for Supporting Oscar. (I'll address the issue of Latino and Asian actresses in another article).

No black woman had won the Best Actress Oscar until 2001, when Halle Berry was selected for her breakthrough performance in “Monster's Ball.” And no black actress has won the Supporting Oscar in 15 years, since Whoopi Gildberg received it for “Ghost.”

Prior to Berry, only six black women were nominated in the lead category:

Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones (1954)
Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Cicely Tyson, Sounder (1972)
Diahann Carroll, Claudine (1974)
Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple (1985)
Angela Bassett, What's Love Got to Do With It (1993)

Note that three of these women (Dandridge, Ross, and Bassett) played showbiz personalities, and that at least a decade elapsed between one nomination and the next. The three black female winners—Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, and Halle Berry–represent vast under-representation considering the proportion (about 12 percent) of blacks in American society.

Whoopi Goldberg's Asexual Role

In 1990, when Goldberg won the Supporting Actress for Ghost, she became the first black actress to win an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, back in 1939. So much for progress. Goldberg told the press rather revealingly: “I never say I'm black when I'm looking for work. I just don't admit it, because as soon as you say it, they tell you there's no work for you. You wouldn't say to a doctor that he couldn't operate on your kneecap because he is black. In the same way, art should have no color and no sex.”

Goldberg, no doubt, benefited form the bonanza success of Ghost, and from the fact that the supernatural romantic melodrama was nominated for major Oscars, including Best Picture. Only a few critics at the time pointed out that Goldberg's role in Ghost was problematic and stereotypical. As Oda Mae Brown, a fake medium dressed in a gold lame dress and sporting long hair, Goldberg operates in the realm of other-worldly spirits, what Bogle has described as “an old stereotype revamped for a new generation.”

The part certainly did not promote a more realistic view of black woman, as Goldberg's character is an asexual oddball, with no personal life of her own, channeling all her energy toward uniting two lovers (played by Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze), and getting an epiphany while pulling off a bank scam at the end.

In addition to McDaniel and Goldberg, few other black actresses were nominated for the Supporting Oscar:

Ethel Waters, Pinky (1949)
Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life (1959)
Bea Richards, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Alfre Woodard, Cross Creek (1983)
Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple (1985)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies (1996)
Queen Latifah, Chicago (2002)
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda (2004) (of Nigerian descent, Okonedo was born and raised in England)

With the notable exceptions of “The Color Purple,” “Secrets & Lies,” and “Hotel Rwanda,” the other films offered mostly stereotypical roles, such as Hattie McDaniel' Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Ethel Waters' Granny in “Pinky.”

Juanita Moore played an all-suffering mother to an ungrateful daughter and housekeeper to a rich white family in “Imitation to Life.” And though Bea Richards played a liberal, middle-class mother in “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” she was given nothing of significance to do or say. The big “message” speeches were left for the men, particularly the white patriarch, played by Spencer Tracy.