Oscar 2007: Black Actors–Progress and Reality

How many men of color will be nominated this year for an acting Oscar, particularly in the lead category, Best Actor

Last year, there were two, Will Smith for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and Forest Whitaker, who actually won, for “Last King of Scotland.” In the supporting league, we had Eddie Murphy, receiving his first nomination for the movie musical “Dreamgirls.”

Updating the data for my Oscar study, which began in 1986, with the publication of the first edition of And the Winner Is: History and Politics of the Academy Awards (the book, in tenth edition, is now titled All About Oscar), here is a more current report that includes this year's voting results.

2007 Potential Nominees

If my reading is valid–and this is only mid-November, two months before the nominations are announced–five of the following men would receive Best Actor nomination. I enlist them alphabetically:

Affleck, Casey, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford
Almaric, Mathieu, The Divine Bell and the Butterfly
Bardem, Javier, No Country for Old Men
Clooney, George, Michael Clayton
Crowe, Russell, 3:10 to Yuma
Cusack, John, Grace Is Gone
Day-Lewis, Daniel, There Will Be Blood
Depp, Johnny, Sweeney Todd
Hanks, Tom, Charlie's War
Hirsch, Emile, Into the Wild
Hoffman, Philip Seymour
Lee Jones, Tommy, In the Valley of Elah
McAvoy, James, Atonement
Mortensen, Viggo, Eastern Promises
Pitt, Brad, Assassination of Jesse James
Washington, Denzel, American Gangster

There's a question mark whether Morgan Freeman is in the lead or supporting category for his comedy, “The Bucket List,” opposite Jack Nicholson, who's rumored to be the lead. This means that only one of the Best Actor contenders will be black, perennial nominee Denzel Washington.

Black Actors at the Oscars

In the Academy's 79-year-history, only 11 performances have won the Oscar, five in the lead and six in the supporting category. Denzel Washington is the only black actor to have won two Oscars.

These performers are:

Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind (1939)
Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field (1963)
Lou Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Denzel Washington, Glory (1988)
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire (1996)
Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001)
Halle Berry, Monster's Ball (2001)
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004)
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006)
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Black Nominees

Poitier, Washington, and Forest Whitaker comprise a small percentage of the Best Actor winners. The percentage of African American Best Actor nominees is slightly higher.

These actors are

James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope (1970)
Paul Winfield, Sounder (1972)
Dexter Gordon, Round' Midnight (1986)
Morgan Freeman, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Denzel Washington, Malcolm X (1992), The Hurricane (1999), and Training Day (2001)
Lawrence Fishburn, What's Love Got to Do With It (1993)
Will Smith, Ali (2001)
Will Smith, Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Supporting Actors

It took 33 years after the creation of the supporting acting categories for the first black performer to be nominated in that league, Rupert Crosse for The Reivers in 1969. Four black actors have won Supporting Oscars, all in the past twenty years:
Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Denzel Washington, Glory (1989)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire (1996)
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004)

The black supporting actor nominees amount to a small percentage of all supporting nominees. They are:
Rupert Crosse, The Reivers (1969)
Howard E. Rollins, Ragtime (1981)
Adolph Caesar, A Soldier's Story (1984)
Morgan Freeman, Street Smart (1989)
Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game (1992)
Samuel Jackson, Pulp Fiction (1994)
Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile (1999).
Djimon Honsou, In America (2003)
Djimon Honsou, Blood Diamond (2006)
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls (2006)

Jaye Davidson, born in California but reared in England, was working as a fashion assistant when director Neil Jordan spotted him for the pivotal role in his psycho-political mystery, The Crying Game. The focus of the film's shocking revelations, Davidson plays the transsexual lover of a British soldier-hostage (Forrest Whitaker) and then the lover of the Irish terrorist (Stephen Rae).

More recently, African model-turned-actor Djimon Honsou made a splash with two Oscar nominations in two years!