2013 S&A Highlights: The Academy Award Effect: Does Winning Help Black Actors’ Careers?

Features
by Abdul Ali
December 31, 2013 1:35 PM
32 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our most popular pieces published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the first of many to come, which I thought was perfectly timed, as we are now deep in awards season, with the 2014 Oscar nominations scheduled to be announced in about 2 weeks from now, and several black actors and directors in the mix. Happy New Year to you all! 

Now that Oscar season is upon us, a deluge of commentary is sure to crop up on the Web about the various disappointments: the black actors who weren’t nominated, those who were nominated but weren’t deserving, and the default (legitimate) argument that there just aren’t enough quality roles for black actors.

We at Shadow & Act thought it would be fun to take a few steps back and look at the past 20+ years of black Oscar winners and evaluate whether an Oscar is all that it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’re black in Hollywood. What is it really worth in terms of a black actor’s career? What kind of political minefield must one tap dance on? Does it guarantee more money? Are black actors welcomed into the coveted A-List? And perhaps most important: Will said black Oscar winner be working in the next two, three years? And if so, will it be Oscar-caliber work or the same old stereotypes?

In the last two decades, give or take, we’ve seen the largest number of black Oscar winners. Ten to be exact: five men and five women. Regrettably not equally distributed in categories of leading and supporting roles or along gender lines. As we know black actresses have a harder time winning and getting roles as leading ladies.

Let’s take a close look at the 10 Oscar winners, examining whether the Oscar has made a difference, if at all, to their careers.

Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress in 1990 for playing Oda Mae Brown in Ghost making her the second African American woman to win in the category of Best Supporting Actress. Her predecessor is Hattie McDaniel who won for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Few actors—black or white—can hold a candle to Ms. Goldberg. Disappointingly, however, her best work happened in the 1980s culminating with Ghost (1990). Her biggest films Post-Oscar include Sister Act (1992), Sarafina (1992) and Corrina, Corrina (1994). Part of the disappointment is that Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with Ms. Goldberg who is both hysterically funny and a dramatic force on screen. In several previous interviews, Ms. Goldberg talked openly about directors giving her a hard time because of her looks. On the whole, Ms. Goldberg’s Oscar seems inconsequential as she hasn’t headlined a major film since Sister Act 2 (1992) and she’s gone into semi-retirement making appearances on television shows and becoming a talking head on the talk show, The View.

Cuba Gooding, Jr won Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for playing Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire where his performance is best summarized by the line he made famous: “Show Me The Money.” For the most part, the Oscar win has allowed Gooding to work steadily in a slew of major films alongside phenomenal co-stars. We could argue, however, that his output has been a bit uneven. I’m not sure how you recover from doing a film like Rat Race (2001) though it remains one of my favorites to date. Another bomb of a film is Radio (2003) that I maintain made a poor attempt at being a black version of Forrest Gump. Add to that, Gooding has been seriously typecast as a boy scout. Rarely, if ever, have I seen Gooding play against type, something different and challenging. I expect nothing less from an Oscar winner.

Halle Berry won Best Lead Actress in 2001 for playing Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball amid a sandstorm of controversy. The win made Halle Berry the first black woman to win in the category of Lead Actress. What’s fascinating about Ms. Berry’s career is that she’s repeatedly told reporters that her beauty has been a hurdle in her career. Winning an Oscar definitely catapulted Halle Berry into the upper echelons of Hollywood. Her output post-Oscar has been uneven but lucrative I gather from reports. Her best work happened pre-Oscar: playing in Jungle Fever (1991), Boomerang (1992) and Queen (1993), a television mini-series. What’s interesting to note is that Ms. Berry has used her relative clout in Hollywood to produce some high quality film projects including Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) a TV movie; Lackawanna Blues (2005), also a TV movie; and the obscure stand out film that hardly anyone was able to see Frankie & Alice (2010). Winning an Oscar for Ms. Berry, has been double-edged, you almost get the sense that she (like most black actresses) want to stretch and show off their acting chops but the scripts attached to the big budgets don’t seem to be making their way to her.

That same year, Denzel Washington won his second Oscar for portraying Det. Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001) for which he won Best Lead Actor. Washington’s first Oscar was for Best Supporting Actor in the film Glory (1989.) The very night that Washington won his Oscar, the Academy also gave a special honor to Sidney Poitier for his illustrious career. At the podium, Washington looks at Poitier and says, “I’ll always be chasing after you, Sidney.” It’s a challenge to gauge whether the second Oscar added much to Washington’s already enviable acting career. In terms of Washington’s output, it seems that his career is evenly split between his two Oscars. In his early career, Washington’s mostly acclaimed and memorable roles were his historic/biographical film roles such as Glory (1989), Cry Freedom (1987) and Malcolm X (1992). His recent work is so radically different from his earlier work that it almost as if another actor has switched places with Mr. Washington. Some might say this is a testament to his A-List status and how much of a brand Denzel Washington has become. It’s been reported widely that he commands around $20 Million per movie. Not many actors can make this claim—black or white. Yet still his recent work, in my view, has been underwhelming.

Jamie Foxx won Best Lead Actor in 2004 for playing Ray Charles in Ray. The multitalented actor—who also sings and tells jokes—has been reaping all of the rewards of an Oscar win as his film projects have been steadily impressive since Ray, lifting him in stature in Hollywood. Mr. Foxx is an incredibly versatile talent, equally comfortable playing serious or funny or supporting and or leading roles. The hoopla surrounding his recent lead role in the controversial Django (2012) suggests that Mr. Foxx will continue to climb. Reports indicate that the Texan-born actor earns approximately $10 Million per movie. It will be interesting to see if Foxx will take on more period films in the vein of Django. It’s definitely a first for the actor, and given its commercial success, people seem to be responding.

Morgan Freeman won Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for playing Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris in Million Dollar Baby. It’s been said that many actors receive Oscars for their careers, not always for a stand out performance. This is my suspicion with Morgan Freeman’s win in 2004. Almost everyone talks about Freeman’s acclaimed performances in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994.) For a career spanning over four decades, this Oscar win didn’t help much in terms of visibility, as he was already a veteran actor when he won in 2004. However, it most likely has helped in terms of larger pay and steadily landing plum roles in major films. How many actors have played God? In terms of quality of roles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that a large body of Morgan Freeman’s work occupies the mentor/sidekick stereotype. Granted this could be a consequence of his age but older actors ought to be fully realized as human as well. To date, my personal favorite is his portrayal of Principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me (1989).

Forest Whitaker won Best Lead Actor in 2006 for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Forrest Whitaker is an actor’s actor. Probably the most talented of all the male winners on this list—a male peer of Whoopi Goldberg. In the past six years since snagging the Academy win for his portrayal of Idi Amin, Whitaker has done some television and voice work along with an array of cop flicks including Vantage Point (2008) and Freelancers (2012.) It would be nice to see Whitaker in more dramatic roles as the gun-totting cop role is a bit nondescript. Anyone can do those kinds of movies. But not every actor can transform into a character the way Forrest Whitaker can. His best work has been in supporting roles in small films like The Great Debaters (2007) and the television film The Feast of All Saints (2001.) His work behind the screen are equally stellar; take a look at his producing credits. It’s nice to know that a talent of this caliber isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and help bring projects to the light of day.

Jennifer Hudson won Best Supporting Actress in 2006 for playing Effie White in Dreamgirls. The American Idol alumna’s relatively short-lived stardom was multiplied and taken through the roof with the adaptation of Dreamgirls (2006) to the silver screen. Hudson was already a household name during her tenure with American Idol. However winning the Oscar put her on the fast track as an actor. Since winning the Oscar, Hudson has gone on to play in films Sex in the City (2008), The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Winnie (2011.) With more dramatic roles, Hudson may well “have it all” picking up where Whitney Houston left off.

Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for playing Mary in Precious. Outside of her short-lived late night show on BET, we haven’t seen much of Mo’Nique. We all remember the flower that adorned her hair on Oscar night, a nod to the late Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American actress to win an Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actress. There have been many reports, including on this site, of Mo’Nique’s interest in playing the late Hattie McDaniel. It’s too soon to say how the Oscar has impacted Mo’Nique’s career that deliberately exists on the fringes of Hollywood.

Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress in 2011 for playing Minny Jackson in The Help. It’s probably too soon to make any predictions on how this Oscar may have helped Octavia Spencer’s career. Spencer is a comedic actress mostly and this was the first time I’ve seen her play a dramatic role. Because so much of the roles for black actors are saturated in stereotypes, Spencer’s role as a complicated and sassy domestic might earn her some extra jobs in Hollywood. Spencer has described her Oscar win as a “needle mover” not overstating its ability to bump her career by any stretch in a recent interview and post on Shadow & Act.

If anything, this exercise has shown that winning an Oscar promises absolutely nothing to actors—black or white. Hollywood is particularly ungenerous to actresses, particularly actresses of color. But I shy away from making too many comparisons to white actors because their path to the Oscars are almost always worlds different from their black colleagues in terms of pay, production budgets, and caliber of scripts.

When asked was the problem with few quality roles for black actors a matter of racism, Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis responded that many of the scripts that she receives are written by up-and-coming black screenwriters and most of the roles presented to her are of urban crack-addicted mothers. (Here’s the link: skip to 5:10.)

In short, on all levels there needs to be a sharing of responsibility—from deep pockets to young independent filmmakers—to ensure that black actors, especially actresses, are given an opportunity to be recognized for all of the training and tenacity it took to get to Hollywood.

Abdul Ali is a culture writer who lives in the nation’s capital. You can follow him on Twitter.

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32 Comments

  • Kerene | December 31, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    I believe Mo "nique was blacklisted in hollywood. She refused to do all that oscar campaign. she bucked the system. There were a lot of articles about her that made some racial slurrs and called her greedy ... she was BLACKLISTED and has had very little success since her win.

  • Dani | January 14, 2013 9:40 PMReply

    "...to ensure that black actors, especially actresses, are given an opportunity to be recognized for all of the training and tenacity it took to get to Hollywood." Reading those words is what truly inspires me. I have a possible theory. I realize that the several black actors/actresses have won oscars mainly because they have portrayed the very behaviors white viewers think all black people encompass. (Octavia Spencer winning for being the "funny black woman"... Halle Berry's ultra sexualized scene in Monster's Ball... Denzel Washington playing the "black man greedy for money"..etc..) I am not knocking any of these actors/actresses performance in these films, nor am i knocking the hard work they have committed towards succeeding in hollywood. My main focus, is pretty much centered on why a black actors /actress cannot be fully recognized for the films they have shown their ultimate talent in. The only actor i can say that truly showed his full talent and won the oscar was jamie foxx. CAN THERE PLEASE BE OTHER ACTORS/ACTRESSES THAT WIN THE GOLDEN MAN WITHOUT HIS/HER ROLE EXPLOITING??

  • Oberto | January 13, 2013 9:52 PMReply

    thx for mentioning Halle in Frankie and Alice, a widely overlooked and great film, my Fav Halle performance post Oscar

  • Bforreal | January 4, 2014 2:27 PM

    I'm not a huge Halle fan (in fact, I generally don't care for her films or her acting), but I remember seeing that trailer and thinking that she looked like she would be in top performance mode. Looked like the sort of film she should've worn an award for, instead of Monster's Ball. It looked amazing. And then I waited for it in the theatres but it never came out in my city or came and left in a blink. I'll have to Netflix or Amazon it. Thanks for bringing it up! I'm looking forward to seeing it!

  • AALI | January 19, 2013 11:31 AM

    Absolutely. It's unfortunate that it wasn't widely shown. It was Halle Berry in rare form. Notice that the projects that she's produced tend to be of a different caliber than the film she's in.

  • david | January 13, 2013 4:35 PMReply

    I wish I could have read the entire article but I stopped at this comment-"Another bomb of a film is Radio (2003) that I maintain made a poor attempt at being a black version of Forrest Gump." THIS IS THEE DUMBEST SHIT I'VE EVER HEARD! It was based on a true story so how the UFCK did YOU come to that conclution? You guys do a great job of posting stories, but that should have been proof read by management before you put it out. NOW I might be deprived of what could have possibly been a good article, because you said some dumb shit at the onset. I wont be back to read a response.

  • Joseph | January 12, 2013 9:17 PMReply

    Mr Louis told us this past Thursday that his phone didn't ring for a whole year after he won the Oscar. I think it's because the roles writers write for an African American is too small for an Oscar award winner, do the winner isn't called for it. Non-traditional casting would remedy the problem, but Hollywood rarely subscribes to that...

  • CHJ | January 11, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    You forgot Louis Gossett Jr. who won Best Supporting Actor for Officer and a Gentleman w/ Richard Gere! That brings the number to eleven.

  • AALI | January 11, 2013 8:36 PM

    CHJ,

    For this piece, I looked at Oscar Winners starting with 1990. I didn't forget.

    Thanks for reading,
    a

  • Nadia | January 11, 2013 7:48 AMReply

    But whether the Oscar win helps careers, I say in some small way it usually does. It may not immediately be noticeable in terms of new jobs, or bigger paychecks, but for at least that year that they win, there'll be a lot of buzz around them which helps raise awareness of them and more people will know about them than they did before. Especially if not many people knew who they were before. But it would be interesting to compare this list to 10 white actors of similar stature to see if there are big differences.

  • Ade | January 11, 2013 7:36 AMReply

    They won because they are members of the Boule - each had to play a disgusting stereotype of our people before they could win the Oscar for 'Best Leading Man or Woman ' in a film - Poor Halle had to portray a stupid , self - indulgent whore ( unfaithful to her incarcerated husband on death row - a traitor ) and Denzel , who should have been awarded for " X " , got the award for playing a corrupt cop !Keeping the stereotypes alive!

  • Dani | January 14, 2013 9:55 PM

    RIGHT RIGHT! This perpetuation of black stereotypes is what i think is inhibiting future and current black actors/actresses from truly exhibiting a stellar role in major films. Some are sick of hearing about the stereotype argument, but I believe WE need to hear it enough to make some major changes. Reality of things sometimes come as a nuisance, but maybe we need to wake up so we aren't bothered anymore by it. - Just conscious and in a constant state of changing things.

  • Troy | January 11, 2013 6:06 PM

    Sense of the nonsensical. The condemnation is the problem. Normal people are disgusting stereotypes. Is it so hard to see people that work in an industry of pure self aggrandizement considering them selves peers and establishing an order that makes them a protected class. Not on the pretenses that they engage in a buffoonery that specifically targets one demographic but acting in it self is a sort of buffoonery. Adults are well paid and respected for doing that which parents, teachers, and many authority figures constantly chastises or physically abuse children for doing. Stop acting up or out. You are embarrassing me. You silly little girl. Act like you have some home training or act like you have been classically trained and show me a convincing crackhead, criminal, whore, or monster. We take children more seriously than Morgan Freeman and he played God, the President, and Miss Daisy's chauffeur.

  • CareyCarey | January 11, 2013 8:15 AM

    Unequivocal NONSENSE Ade! They won because their performance was superior to the rest of the field. Look, each year there are hundreds of what you define as "stereotypes" but they are not even nominated. So what does that tell you? And, what exactly is a stereotype? Are they a reflection of someone who actually exists or has graced our world? If so, why do you harbor such contempt for those characters? Personally, I know a few corrupt cops and my mother was a maid. Who isn't familiar with a few whores, white and black? My great-great-great grandfather was a slave. Should I run from or belittle his image? My uncle was the man who played the character "Kingfish" on the Amos & Andy television series. Was he a "stereotype" and thus should not be honored and respected for his pioneer efforts? I watched the movies "Precious" and "Ray" and I am still here. That must make me a special kind of survivor b/c I don’t feel compelled to shoot heroin or rape my daughter. My white neighbors still wave at me as they pass by. I don’t know what they are saying about me in their homes, nor do I care. A Precious lived down the street from me. The rumors and whispers surrounding the father of her children have stood the test of time and I am still alive. "Precious" and "Ray" are movies. Can we move forwards? Mo`nique killed the part of Precious Jones! Wasn’t she the epitome of EVERY abusive mother in the world, white and black? In every detail, Mo`nique captured my vision of the quintessential angry, hostile, vicious, manipulative, cunning and insecure women. That's why she won the Oscar. Ray Charles was a drug addict and a womanizer and I am still alive. And, my white neighbors still wave at me as they drive by. Again, I don’t know what they are saying about me or my people, nor do I care.

  • Nadia | January 11, 2013 7:46 AM

    I'm so sick of hearing these arguments about "stereotypes."

  • CareyCarey | January 11, 2013 6:52 AMReply

    Tear out my ears by the roots! Cut off my legs! Do what'nsoever you want to do with me, Mr Charlie, but please, please, please, don't throw that Oscar my way! Are you kidding me Ali, only a zip fool would say an Oscar does not "help" an actor's (ANY ACTOR'S) career. Granted, it may not be a pass to heaven or an unobstructed road to fortune and fame, but who would run from an Oscar? Listen, this is an image conscious world and in show business... image is everything. An Oscar win champions that image. Having said that, the following is a highly faulty question -->"And perhaps most important: Will said black Oscar winner be working in the next two, three years? And if so, will it be Oscar-caliber work or the same old stereotypes?" Excuse me, what is Oscar-caliber work? For that matter, what exactly are the same old stereotypes? Would that be the same types of "characters" that earned them the Oscar in the first place? Did the stereotypical character earn the Oscar or was it the actor's performance? In other words, did Octavia Spencer or Minny Jackson (the maid) win the Oscar? Did Forest Whitaker's performance or Idi Amin's cannibalistic nature (stereotypical black dictator ;-)) win the Oscar? Did the chauffeur win the Oscar or was it Morgan Freeman's performance that turned heads? I am suggesting that the devil is in the details and an Oscar win is NEVER a bad thang.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 10, 2013 9:52 PMReply

    Winning only helps most actors' careers for a calendar year thereafter. You get "hot" and suddenly everyone wants to feature you in everything (although not necessarily in a lead role). They're all just trying to cash in on your newly acquired marquee status -- that is, they get to put "Academy Award winner" or "Academy Award nominee" on the poster to get asses into seats. That's why I believe that the Oscar is more a marketing tool than an objective assessment of one's talent as an actor. Peter O'Toole will probably die without a competitive Oscar, but he's one of the best to ever do it (on film). Awards truly are meaningless, unless you need a career boost or a crowbar to jimmy open a couple more doors for meetings. By that I mean that Sally Field, Robert DeNiro, DDL, Denzel and a bunch of others nominated will be A-okay without taking home the gold. Now, Quvenzhane Wallis? That's another story.

  • FactChecker | January 10, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    It can help, if it's in the right hands. Actors and Actresses, regardless of race, who are savvy about the business and strategic in how they choose parts have greatly benefited. Think: Denzel, Whoopi, Meryl, Sarandon, Cher,Pacino, DiNero, Elizabeth Taylor, Morgan Freeman. All of these actors, and I'm sure others, have -- by and large -- consistently chosen roles on film, and in TV, as well as other projects, that audiences have responded to and that keep their names alive in the popular culture, make money for the studios and producers, and make money for the actors themselves. It's called show BUSINESS for a reason. And most actors aren't as astute, nor do they have the business acumen, necessary to experience longevity in their careers, which includes having an equally savvy team of agents and managers.

  • D.C. Kirkwood | January 10, 2013 8:31 PMReply

    An Oscar isn't a benefit unless your a producer or director of a film. But as an actor no. Martin Lawrence, Eddie, Vin Diesal, The Rock and others command between 7 to 12million a film. plus they are given producers credit, they work more than Denzel, and get backend box office profit which in the long run is more important.

  • Troy | January 11, 2013 5:24 PM

    Not more than getting 20 million before you step on a set whether the film happens or not. It just means they have to work twice as had for their money. Movie star, Superstar Comedians, World Champion Pro Wrestler, racially futuristic faux tough guy who is probably Arnold's illegitimate child from a South American show girl.

  • ALM | January 10, 2013 7:17 PMReply

    Does winning help? Only about half the time

  • Donella | January 10, 2013 6:43 PMReply

    Both Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are an acting forces pre- and post-Oscar. I see Cuba Gooding Jr and Forest Whitaker in the B-flick circuit quite often and usually enjoy them both.

  • Adrienne | January 10, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    It doesn't help, esp. if they don't have the right agent and their timing is off. For example, Halle Berry was a "Bond girl" after her win --which was just timing, though it hasn't necessarily hurt her career, it didn't make a case for more interesting roles. The same with Jennifer Hudson ("The 3 Stooges" --really?). I think it may *also* have a lot to do with their agents, contracts, advice and their goals as an actor. Some use it as a springboard to directing and producing, which I think is magnificent, too.

  • AALI | January 10, 2013 6:13 PM

    Point well-made. Timing I'm sure is a co-factor. But I think Hollywood is business like any other. There are very few and far between once-in-a-lifetime roles out there. For the most part, these people are just working to stay relevant and pay their mortgage(s) at the same time.

    I think it's great when actors get into directing, producing, and optioning their own projects as well.

  • Emmett Period | January 10, 2013 5:54 PMReply

    Curtis "50 cent" Jackson gets more roles than any black actor working... Sad

  • Troy | January 11, 2013 5:11 PM

    Do you just hate rappers or black men? He was in 2 movies last year. I don't like him as a human being. I also know that no named black actors don't help get movies made they just act in them and never become household names like so many of the talented black actors that came before them.

  • Andrea | January 10, 2013 5:15 PMReply

    It helps you if got a lot of talent to back up the Oscar with. I have not one thing against Halle Berry, but her acting chops are middling, at best. Think she won because the subject matter of that movie was so ugly and difficult...and because she uglied herself up for the part (had to be plain and downtrodden instead of pretty and glam).

  • Troy | January 11, 2013 4:54 PM

    Baps, Losing Isaiah, Jungle Fever, Bulworth. Those are the type of roles she plays. They are why she is a star. You have to be a star before you get a big role.

  • THBDD | January 10, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    There is some reflection of Hollywood's gender biases in the answer, but Oscar winners also have to choose future projects well. Denzel has certainly done better than Halle in the latter aspect.

  • Bondgirl | January 12, 2013 10:37 AM

    @Troy: "You still my nigga!" Didn't Denzel say the same thing verbatim to Ethan Hawke in the last scene of Training Day? Your comment validates AAli's sentiment...women are held to an unfair higher standard than men, even black men.

  • Troy | January 11, 2013 4:50 PM

    Halle Berry last words in Bulworth to Warren Beatty, "You still my Nigga!" she is terrible and embarrassing as only an A-list actress. Not embarrassing by a woman trying to fuck her way to the top.

  • AAli | January 10, 2013 6:00 PM

    @THBDD Denzel is privileged by his gender to be in a position to choose well. Halle has the acting chops but the directors and producers see her the way they saw Lena Horne, mostly as ornamentation.

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