by Allison Whittenberg
For New Pittsburgh Courier
In 1939, when Hattie McDaniel made world history by being the first African-American to win an Oscar, her “Gone with the Wind” co-star Olivia de Havilland reportedly left the ballroom in tears. She, too, was nominated as Best Supporting Actress and she wanted to be recognized for her stellar work in this iconic film. Of course, Ms. de Havilland had no need to fret for within a few short years she would snag several plum roles where she could shine and be recognized. She won the coveted statue not just once but twice. But fate wouldn’t shine upon McDaniel so brightly.
For McDaniel, though she did work steadily (albeit in a maid’s uniform) throughout the ’40s until her death in the ’50s, there would be no other role that would grant her the attention of Academy voters. The reasons why there would be no second chance for this charismatic screen presence are at once obvious: American cinema just wasn’t ready for her. It wasn’t her time.
Flash forward to 2010. Two African-American plus-sized actress were nominated for the critically acclaimed (ungainly titled) “Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” Though this will be Mo’Nique’s and Gabourey Sidibe’s first time walking the red carpet as potential winners that big night, their greenness is their strength. If one or both of them win, “history” will be made for sure. (Mo’Nique won for Best Actress in a supporting Role for her portrayal of an abusive mother). But the real question is what happens the day after the ceremony? Will either or both ladies follow the same pattern set by McDaniel? Of the few Black performers who have won this prestigious award, nearly all the performers have won on their first nomination. Yep, all the female actresses: Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson won their first and (to date last) nominations. Best Supporting Actors super lucky Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lou Gossett Jr. also won their first and only (so far) time at bat. Not to say that these actors are flashes in the pan but more high profile bodies of work would help to further hold their place in film history yet that fails to occur. We have no grand dame like Meryl Streep with gazillion nominations or one-Oscar-for-each-decade-he’s-been-acting Jack Nicholson. We don’t even have an ingénue type perpetually nominated (one time winner) Kate Winslet. For the large part, once a Black actor gets that one chance to show their chops, it’s over for the rest of their “careers.” Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are the closest Black performers have gotten to perennials. Of course, in 2004, Jamie Foxx, became the first Black person to get nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the same year (couldn’t he have spread it out?).
Since the release of “Birth of a Nation,” the NAACP has applied pressure on Hollywood studios to offer more diverse roles to Blacks. Of course, we need to get the roles before we get the recognition. In the mid-’90s, frustration boiled over in a Jesse Jackson led Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “blackout,” protesting Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Since then Black people still struggle for inclusion when it comes to positive, meaningful representations on the silver screen. From time to time we’ve been granted guest passes but full membership has been elusive, even in 2010. Tellingly, in a recent interview when Mo’Nique was asked about upcoming movie roles she quipped, “Ain’t a damn soul called me.”
(Allison Whittenberg is the author four novels, most recently “Hollywood and Maine” [Random House 2009].)