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A Look At Black Actresses Who Might Contend For The Best Actress Oscar + Some History

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 9, 2013 at 5:33PM

A Look At Black Actresses Who Might Contend For The Best Actress Oscar + Some History
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It's that time of the year, as prognosticators at every level handicap the Academy Awards, which are set to take place on February 24. The nominations were initially scheduled to be announced on Januray 15, but the date was moved up 5 days to January 10, which is tomorrow!

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.

Earlier today, I focused on black actors who just might make the short list of Oscar nominees in the Best Actor (male) category when they're announced tomorrow (read that post HERE if you missed it); in this post, my focus is on black actresses and the Best Actress category.

And just like the list of eligible black actors in the Best Actor category, the list of eligible black actresses for the Best Actress Oscar is very short - even shorter than the list of eligible black actors.

Of the 600+ films that saw Oscar-qualifying USA theatrical releases at the end of last year, I counted a total of 11 that feature a black actress in a leading role. Doing the math, that's less than 2% of total volume (the black actors list was at 21).

It shouldn't be shocking however; it's a rare occurrence when we cover a film (especially a studio-backed project) that stars a black woman, or a film with a story that centers on the life of a black woman. Very, very, very rare.

And actually, it's really less than 11, because I'm also including indie features in that number; and some of the titles aren't really centered on a black woman character, but feature a black actress in a prominent role, although likely not one that she'd get a Best Actress nomination for. 

In other words, I'm stretching here! If I were to be really strict, the figure would be closer to 6 or so.

As I said previously, it most certainly is a white man's world, in case you needed that clarification. The overwhelming majority of films made and distributed by studios today, star white male actors.

And if you take a closer look at the list of 11 eligible 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 11, only 2 really stand a chance of making the short list of nominees for Best Actress. 

First, here's the list of 11: Think Like a ManWoman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th DayJoyful NoiseSparkle, Cloud AtlasBeasts of the Southern WildWon't Back DownCeleste and Jesse ForeverMiddle of NowhereDysfunctional Friends, and Django Unchained.

Automatically, we can eliminate ensemble cast films like Think Like A Man and Dysfunctional Friends, because, well, they're ensemble cast movies, and I can't say that any one character in those movies really stands head and shoulders above the rest, or is highlighted more-so than the others.

We can also say goodbye to films like Django UnchainedCloud Atlas and Won't Back Down. Again, while each features a leading female character played by a black actress, I'd say that if any of the actress performances in these films were to be nominated, they'd likely be in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

So that leaves us with Woman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th DayJoyful Noise, SparkleBeasts of the Southern WildCeleste and Jesse Forever, and Middle of Nowhere.

And from that list of 6 remaining, based on the performances of each film (in terms of criteria like box office, critical acclaim - reviews, awards already won - overall awareness - especially where it matters - and awards season buzz), it shouldn't at all be difficult to narrow the 6 down to 2: Quvenzhané Wallis for her performance in Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Emayatzy Corinealdi for her work in Middle Of Nowhere.

And of the two young actresses, based on what the so-called experts on these matters are saying, as I look through several of their projections lists, I'd say that Ms Wallis has the edge over Emayatzy. These are two very different performances (ostentatious versus understated) in 2 very different films. But one, the sentimental favorite, crossed over quite early on, and won over audiences widely - a splashy kind of an intro that only seemed to pick up steam beyond that - while the other gradually, deliberately, if quietly, built momentum. 

But maybe there's room for both of them on the short list of 5 nominees. However, despite all the certainty among the pros that Wallis is practically a sure-thing, I'm still not entirely confident about that, and probably won't be until the nominations are actually announced tomorrow. Nothing's a guarantee, and we just might be surprised by a pick or two.

Their competition at this point, based on an aggregate of several top lists I've looked at are: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook (several say she's the front-runner);  Marion CotillardRust and BoneEmmanuelle RivaAmourNaomi WattsThe ImpossibleHelen MirrenHitchcock; of course, you can never count out Meryl StreepHope SpringsKeira Knightley in another period piece, Anna Karenina; Jessica ChastainZero Dark ThirtyJudi DenchThe Best Exotic Marigold HotelMary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed; and Laura LinneyHyde Park on Hudson.

There were others, but these were mentioned most often - especially the first few. 

I did see some mention Viola Davis for Won't Back Down as a potential; but, as I said in my write-up of that film, it really was Maggie Gyllenhaal's story, as far as I'm concerned. Viola Davis was more of a supporting character in that film. But I don't think any of that matters anyway, because the movie wasn't well-received, critically and commercially. Any mentions of a potential Viola Davis Best Actress nomination here, I'd say are maybe more of a nod to her past work and ability, than to her performance as a rather uninteresting, and underwritten character, in what was ultimately a forgettable movie.

There was at least one mention of Rashida Jones in Celeste And Jesse Forever; but, despite good reviews, it didn't quite register at the box office, and there's just not enough buzz around the film, or any of the performances, that draw Academy attention to her.

The last time a black actress was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar was Viola Davis, for her performance in The Help, last year. The last time 2 black actresses were nominated for Best Actress in the same year was in 1972, when Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder), both were on the short list; although neither of them won. And that was the ONLY time in Oscar history that more than 1 black actress has been nominated in that category. 

The last time a black actress WON the Oscar for Best Actress was... this should be easy, because it's only happened ONCE in history... Halle Berry for her performance in Monster's Ball, in 2001. Talk about a drought!

And it looks like that *streak* (if we can call it that) will continue this year, unless a black actress wins the award in 2013.

Still a long way to go...

Any glaring ommissions on my part here, in terms of potential black Best Actress nominees...? Madea, maybe? Thandie Newton in Good Deeds? Nah... probably neither.


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