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A Look At The Black Actors Who Might Contend For The Best Actor Oscar + Some Interesting History

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act November 15, 2012 at 4:33PM

It's that time of the year, as prognosticators at every level start handicapping the Academy Awards, which are set to take place on February 24 (nominations will be announced on Januray 15, 2013).
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Oscar

It's that time of the year, as prognosticators at every level start handicapping the Academy Awards, which are set to take place on February 24 (nominations will be announced on Januray 15, 2013).

As much as some of us might dismiss the Oscars as an indication of where black cinema is, or where blacks in cinema are, we can't ignore their overall industry relevance. 

I can already hear the chants: who cares about the Oscars; they're not for *us.* Well, a lot of folks in the industry (and out) do certainly care, and see value in the recognition. I plan to post a follow-up piece that looks at the history of the awards show, and how (or if) it's impacted the careers of those black entertainers who've won trophies.

Today, I'm focusing on black actors who just might make the short list of Oscar nominees in the Best Actor (male) category when they're announced in January; and as you'd expect, there aren't many of them.

In fact, of the 600+ films that would have seen Oscar-qualifying USA theatrical releases by the end of this year, I counted a total of 19 that feature a black male actor in a leading role. How pathetic is that? Doing the math, that's about 3% of total volume. 

It shouldn't be shocking however; it's a rare occurrence when we cover a film (especially a studio-backed project) that features a black man in the lead role. Very, very rare. 19 times rare. Actually it's less than 19, because I'm also including indie features in that number.

19 out of well over 600 films! It's a white man's world, in case you needed that clarification. The overwhelming majority of films with male leads (the bulk of movies made by studios today) star white male actors. 

And if you take a closer look at the list of 19 films, you'd very quickly dismiss most of them as potential Oscar contenders, given what we know of the criteria for Oscar-caliber movies. In fact, I'd say of the 19, only 3 really stand a chance of making the short list of nominees for Best Actor. 

First, here's the list of 19: Red Hook SummerThe Magic of Belle IsleWuthering HeightsMIB 3Safe HouseThink Like a Man, Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness ProtectionFlightRed TailsTyler Perry's Good DeedsAlex CrossA Thousand WordsThe Man with the Iron FistsThe IntouchablesWoman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th DayUnconditional2 Days in New York, The Last Fall, and Django Unchained.

Am I forgetting any films? I used Box Office Mojo as my primary source. I don't think there are any glaring ommissions though.

And of those 19, the only 3 that I think have a shot at nominations are: Denzel Washington in Flight (he's probably a sure-thing), Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, and Omar Sy in The Intouchables.  The last 2 are Weinstein Company movies, and we all know how well Harvey Weinstein does when it comes to ensuring that movies he wants on the ballot, make it on the ballot.

The Omar Sy pick might seem out of left field to you, but, as we've noted in past posts, there's been a definite push to get him an Oscar nomination for his work in that film. He already won the French equivalent of the Oscar (the César) for Best Actor, so why not the Oscar as well.

"We definitely think this is an Oscar movie, and we think that Omar, like Jean Dujardin before him, is in this race," Harvey has said. Of course he's referring to Jean Dujardin who won the Best Actor Oscar earlier this year, for his work in The Artist (one of the most over-rated movies I saw in 2011).

Maybe he'll make it a a double, with Omar Sy this year. I doubt it, given the competition; but a nomination isn't entirely out of the question.

But if I were to pick one of these 3 actors who I thought was guaranteed to make the short list of 5 nominees, I'd go with Denzel without any hesitation. Django Unchained isn't out yet, but even when it is released, I don't know if Jamie's peformance will match the overwhelming buzz that's surrounded Denzel's work in Flight since it was released.

And I think Omar Sy would need even more of a push. I'm not really hearing his name mentioned as a real contender.

As for the other 16 films on the list, the only other title that I'd say has some potential is Wuthering Heights, which stars James Howson as Heathcliff. There just hasn't been enough buzz to help elevate awareness of the film. It was released on October 5, and was met with mixed reviews. It hasn't even reached $100,000 in box office, despite having been in theaters for over a month. And I haven't Howson's name mentioned at all as a potential awards contender. It would help if he'd been up for other awards, especially as the film traveled the festival circuit, but he hasn't picked up any.

I should mention that I considered other films with black actors in starring roles, but none of them featured what would be traditionally referred to as a male lead, so I didn't include them on the list of 19; these are roles that, if nominated, would likely be in the Best Supporting Actor category. For example: Omari Hardwick and David Oyelowo in Middle Of Nowhere (it's really Emayatzy Corinealdi's movie); I'd say the same for the male characters in Sparkle, and also Beasts Of The Southern Wild (specifically, Dwight Henry).

So that's it!

I'd be absolutely shocked if Denzel Washington isn't nominated for Flight. The others, I can't be certain of. Looking at the rest of the competition, keeping in mind that there are only 5 slots to be filled, with 4 left (after Denzel), you've got Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (I'd say he's also a guarantee), Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (although he may have done some damage to his chances when he called the Oscars "bullshit" a few weeks ago), Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock, and a name that's showing up a lot of lists, John Hawkes in The Sessions

There has also been some buzz for Bradley Cooper's performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, which is out this week.

It's also rare that 2 black actors are nominated in the same category - specifically in the Best Actor category. It's happened 3 times in the history of the Oscars, and they were all in this century - 2001, 2004, 2006.

And here's an interesting stat - in each of those 3 years when there has been more than 1 black actor nominated in the Best Actor category, the Oscar has always been won by one of the black actors. So if Jamie Foxx or Omar Sy make the nominations list (I'm counting Denzel as a definite), and if history repeats itself, a black actor will win the Oscar for Best Actor in 2013!

We'll see in about 2 months.

I'll return with a look at Best Actress contenders next.


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