Supporting Actress Oscar: A Ghetto?

LemonWade’s Oscar expert Rex Okpodu looks at potential nominees Lupita N’yongo and Oprah Winfrey and asks: Has the best supporting actress category become a ghetto? In 77 years of Academy history (the supporting acting categories started in 1936), there have been 16 black actresses nominated in the best-supporting-actress category. Five black actresses have won, 2 of them in the last 3 years: Monique won for “Precious” in 2009 and Octavia Spencer for “The Help” in 2011. Whilst I applaud the recent trend of wins, it is worth noting that majority of the noms and wins have been for playing domestics — thus the ghetto designation.

Time was when black actresses were mostly ignored in this category. Hattie McDaniel famously won the first Academy Award by a black person for 1939’s “Gone With The Wind.” From then, there were single nominations for each of the proceeding decades. Ethel Walters was nominated for “Pinky” in 1949, Juanita Moore for “Imitation of Life” in 1959 and Beah Richards for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1967. There were no nominations for black actresses in this category in the 1970s and things improved marginally in the 80s as three black actresses got nominated: Alfre Woodard, for “Cross Creek” (1983), and Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery both for “The Color Purple” in 1985.

Whoopi Goldberg’s win in 1990 for “Ghost” seemed like a welcome new development but sadly black actresses were in for a few more years waiting in the wings. There were no more noms until Marianne Jean–Baptiste, (“Secrets and Lies,” 1996), Queen Latifah, (“Chicago,” 2002), and Sophie Okonedo, (“Hotel Rwanda,” 2004).

Jennifer Hudson was the first win since 1990 when she won for “Dreamgirls” in 2006, followed by noms for Ruby Dee (“American Gangster”), Viola Davis (“Doubt”) and Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). Mo’Nique started the recent wins with her victory for “Precious” (2009) and Octavia Spencer added to the winning rostrum with her Oscar for “The Help” in 2011.

This year’s contenders will almost certainly include nominations for Winfrey in “The Butler,” Nyong’O for “12 Years a Slave” and possibly Octavia Spencer for “Fruitvale Nation.” Most Oscar prognosticators are predicting that either Winfrey or Nyong’O will take home the statuette. The latter doesn’t play a domestic — she plays a slave. The former plays neither a domestic nor a slave: if she wins the award, does that mean that Oscar will start having room for blacktresses who can succeed by playing other types?

Leave a Comment