Who could forget back in 2001 when the 74th Annual Academy Awards were unofficially dubbed “the year of the Black Oscar”?
Halle Berry and Denzel Washington captured the world’s attention with their leading performance awards, and Sydney Poitier was awarded a special honorary Oscar.
Berry became the first woman of color to win a “Best Actress” award for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” Washington (“Training Day”) and Will Smith (“Ali”) became the first two men of color to be nominated together in “Best Actor” category.
Well, after 2014, the 2001 Academy Awards will have to be remembered as something else.
How fitting (yet underreported) that on the 75th anniversary of Hattie McDaniel’s win as the first black to bring home Oscar gold – and the 60th anniversary of Dorothy Dandridge’s “Best Actress” nod for her performance in “Carmen” –barriers were still being blown down for Blacks at the Academy Awards.
Considered to be the darling of this year’s Oscars, “Best Supporting Actress” winner Lupita Nyong’o’s deep chocolate skin beamed almost as brightly as her statue when she lifted it to the heavens.
The image of her doing so will personify the 2014 Oscars for future generations – as will her “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen jumping for joy across the stage after the film captured “Best Picture” honors.
And while the film’s three wins – also including “Best Adapted Screenplay” for John Ridley – made “12 Years a Slave” the big winner of Sunday evening, there was more to celebrate off-stage.
Until mid-way through the ceremony, when she delivered her remarks, few realized that for the first time in history an African American, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents the Oscars). She is only the third woman to do so, and the first in more than 30 years.
Nyong’o became the sixth Black actress to win Best Supporting Actress, joining McDaniel (“Gone with the Wind”), Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Mo’Nique (“Precious”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). But the Kenyan actress was the first African person of color to win an Academy Award (South African actress Charlize Theron became the first African to win for her role in “Monster”).
And while British actors and actresses have become synonymous with the Academy Awards, as far as being major contenders and winners over the years, her co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor became the first Black Brit to earn a nomination for Best Actor.
McQueen was the first Black British person to be nominated for Best Director and only the third Black to be nominated in the category.
McQueen also became the first Black producer to win Best Picture, and “12 Years a Slave” became the first film with a Black director to win in that category.
From start to finish, the evening was thrilling, captivating and a long time coming.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” Nyong’o said during her acceptance speech.
She was speaking of her performance as Patsey, the tortured enslaved girl who was at the mercy of her master’s lust.
But her statement could also apply to McDaniel’s experience at the Oscars back in 1939.
McDaniel and her guests were relegated to a “colored section,” and she wasn’t even given the dignity of being able to speak her own words of gratitude.
Because she was Black, McDaniel’s acceptance speech was prepared by the Academy – which is almost impossible to believe after seeing Isaacs introduce herself to tens of millions of viewers as the Academy’s president in 2014.
This year’s Oscars spoke to the possibility and promise of diversity in a way that had never been done before. Through “Black Oscars 2014,” we saw ourselves – in front of and behind the camera, on and off the stage – and we were given something to aspire towards.
“When I look down at this golden statue,” Nyong’o said, “may it remind me – and every little child – that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”