It has been a hard, often agonizing, struggle for actors of color on the silver screen — even in success.
The first African-American thesp to be nominated and win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, as a Southern “mammy,” as a supporting actress in 1939 best picture “Gone With the Wind.” While an Oscar often opens doors to better roles, for McDaniel that was not the case. She continued to largely play maids and servants for the rest of her career.
It would take almost a quarter-century before another actor of color walked up to the podium in winning, when Sidney Poitier took home gold for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.” The number of black actors who had been nominated in the interim required fewer than the fingers of one hand to enumerate (Poitier himself, Dorothy Dandridge).
Despite political strides for equality achieved throughout the 1960s, it would be almost two decades before another African-American won an Oscar, Louis Gossett Jr. as supporting actor in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Only in the past decade has the balance begun to be redressed, with an increasing number of African-American actors being nominated for, and winning, Oscars.
This year there are at least a half-dozen black actors who have a shot at a nomination, including Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna for “Catch a Fire,” Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland,” Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Djimon Hounsou for “Blood Diamond” and the cast of “Dreamgirls,” including Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx.
Veteran producer Paula Weinstein (“Blood Diamond”) offers this as proof of the changing landscape.
“The civil-rights movement really did happen. Though there aren’t enough yet, there are more black actors with power in Hollywood today. Once there was a Sidney Poitier, now there are five, six, seven,” she says.
As stars such as Smith, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg and Samuel L. Jackson have brought their economic clout to bear, the change Weinstein speaks about has accelerated. Through their efforts, more and better roles for black actors have surfaced.
“It’s all about the stature of people of color in film today,” says Luke. “I don’t think people in the industry care as much about color as they do popularity, and when you have audiences talking about going to see a ‘Denzel movie,’ ‘Will Smith movie,’ ‘Halle Berry movie,’ that’s what makes the difference.”
Still, it was more than 100 years after the birth of cinema before a woman of color would win an Oscar for lead actress (Berry, for “Monster’s Ball”), or a second actor would win lead actor (Washington, for “Training Day”) — and both in the same year. Two years ago, Foxx took home the prize for “Ray,” yet that’s still only three in almost 80 years.
As the trickle becomes a stream, there are still those who say that more studio executives of color would further hasten the process, as would more African-American scribes and directors. But, as Weinstein points out, there are now more women studio heads and executives than ever before, but that has yet to produce a dramatic surge in strong roles for women.
The marquee value of black names has, to date, done the most to engender the meaty roles. African-Americans have begun to level the playing field by doing what every actor with clout seems to do these days — start their own production companies.
It was through Smith’s shingle, Overbrook Entertainment, that “The Pursuit of Happyness” was developed and honed to use the actor’s charismatic personality in the role of a struggling father who has sole care of his young son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden).
Another advance has been what writer-director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) refers to as “color-blind” casting. “Beverly Hills Cop” was originally cast with Sylvester Stallone. When he dropped out, Murphy took over, mainly because of the star wattage he had evidenced in “48 Hours.”
Similarly, Queen Latifah wasn’t the logical choice to play the prison matron in “Chicago,” but Rob Marshall chose her anyway, bringing the actress her first Oscar nom. Condon (who adapted “Chicago”) says when Bob Fosse originally conceived the musical in the 1970s, “he was more of a stickler for realism and, the fact is, prisons were not integrated in the 1920s.” Thirty years later, however, Marshall looked beyond that and cast Latifah, who was already a bona fide recording star and popular TV and film actress.
The prominence of directors such as Spike Lee, John Singleton and crossover actor-directors like Whitaker and Washington (who gave Luke his first break in “Antwone Fisher”) has also helped foster black talent. Their subject matter has largely been the African-American experience. Offshore filmmakers have expanded the variety of projects for people of color and provided them with new and varied acting challenges in films such as “Hotel Rwanda” (Oscar nomination for Don Cheadle), Cheadle’s upcoming “Toussaint” and this year, “Catch a Fire” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
Many of these stories are set in Africa, says Whitaker, but universal in scope.
“They reflect problems we’re all dealing with,” he says. “They serve as a mirror to what’s going on here and in other places around the world. It’s not only exciting to be able to share stories about the African continent, it’s a great opportunity for black artists.”
African-American males are benefiting the most from these changes, mainly because there are more black actors with box office clout. If there are fewer choice roles for women of color, says Weinstein, it’s because there are fewer good roles for women in general.
But here, too, change is under way, Condon says. Latifah and Berry are only two “self-starter” actresses who have been making projects happen for themselves. Condon cites Knowles as another, given her popularity as a recording artist, not only here but worldwide.
“Beyonce sells more albums overseas than she does here,” Condon says. “She represents a new generation in which the barriers have truly broken down, and she has the potential to develop musical movie projects for herself in the same way that Barbra Streisand did.
“This is an incredibly fertile moment for black actors. One day on the set of ‘Dreamgirls,’ I panned the camera and saw Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson. That’s three generations of charismatic, talented African-American performers on the same stage. I was floored.”