11 Oscar Snubs Of Women of Color From History Highlight Overlooked Roles
On May 16, 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed its first prizes at the inaugural Oscar ceremony. ("It looks like my Uncle Oscar," Academy librarian Margaret Herrick is reported to have said in 1931, however apocryphally.) Many of the categories honored at that first ceremony — Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture — are still the mainstays of the Oscars, and in many ways, the composition of the nominees within those categories remains the same. Overwhelmingly white, the Oscars snub deserving women of color. Nearly 100 years after the first Academy Awards ceremony, people of color continue to be overlooked at the Oscars — and women of color more than any.
At the 1929 Oscars, the big winners were Sunrise, Wings, and 7th Heaven and their stars Janet Gaynor and Emil Jannings. Charlie Chaplin won an honorary award for his contributions to film that same year. White names, all of them: Decades before the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood marginalized people of color, yet it continues to do so even now. The 1939 ceremony saw the first award given to a woman of color — Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind (the film won 10 Oscars in total that year). In 2001, Halle Berry became the first and only black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. Among Latina women, the tides have been even slower to shift. Rita Moreno won Best Supporting Actress in 1961 for West Side Story , making her the first Latina to win an acting award. And no Latina woman has ever won Best Actress.
The 2015 Oscars drew harsh headlines for the homogeneity of its nominees, highlighted by Selma 's Oscars snub. The Atlantic wrote that the Oscars "haven't been this white in 19 years," while the Daily Beast recalled the demographics of the 1998 ceremony. Perhaps it was particularly shocking on the heels of the 2014 Academy Awards, during which Steve McQueen's landmark 12 Years A Slave won three awards — including the fifth Best Supporting Actress award in history to go to a black woman, to Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o — and was nominated for six more. But it's not a matter of recognizing individual movies; the uniformity of Oscar nominees year after year reflects a systemic, structural problem in the way that nominees are selected. The Los Angeles Times reported results from a 2013 survey that revealed voting members of the Academy to be 93 percent white and 76 percent male. That electing body, perhaps unsurprisingly, tends to support films that reflect its own identity: The lack of women of color among the nominees isn't a testament to the lack of qualified women of color, but rather, it evidences the perspective of the nominating body.
Because it's not that no Latina women have ever merited the Best Actress Oscar — it's that those who have are generally not on the radar of the overwhelmingly white, male Academy voters. These are some of the biggest names among women of color who have been overlooked for Academy Awards both behind and in front of the lens. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but points to the brutal industry-to-Academy cycle that highlights the same demographics year after year, even when more diverse and talented women are right on the screen. 12 Years A Slave seems to have been an exception, rather than the rule.
The Color Purple, 1985
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's classic novel holds the record for most Oscar nominations without a single win. And foremost among the nominations were those for The Color Purple's stellar female-fronted ensemble: Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for Best Actress, while Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress. In the Supporting Actress category, the Academy could have done better for diversity simply by throwing a dart at the nominees' names.
Ruby Dee, Do The Right Thing, 1989
Ruby Dee died in 2014 at the age of 91, having never won an Oscar and only being nominated once, in 2008 for American Gangster. But two decades prior, Dee played Mother Sister in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a role for which she — but not the film, which was nominated for two Academy Awards — was overlooked.
Pam Grier, Jackie Brown, 1997
In recent years, Quentin Tarantino has proved he can make films that straddle the divide between cult acclaim and awards-season favorites. Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, and this year's Hateful Eight have all received their share of attention. But Jackie Brown, one of Tarantino's earlier films and an oft-overlooked one, featured one of his most incredible female leads in Grier's title character. Grier earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role, but didn't get much attention at the Academy Awards that year. That's not to say that Jackie Brown was overlooked — supporting actor Robert Forster was nominated for an Oscar. But Grier, whose role in Jackie Brown breathed new life into her career much like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, was snubbed.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, Love and Basketball, 2000
Universally loved, and honored with Best First Screenplay at its Sundance debut, Love and Basketball nevertheless didn't appear on the Academy's radar at the Oscars 16 years ago. Bitch Media highlighted the screenplay, writing that the "snappy dialogue" and emphasis on sexism in college athletics merited more consideration during awards season. Prince-Bythewood went on to write The Secret Life of Bees, for which she was also overlooked. And, according to the same story, just one black woman has ever been nominated for Best Screenplay — Suzanne de Passe for Lady Sings the Blues, 1972.
Kerry Washington, Ray, 2004
Washington has never earned an Oscar nomination despite appearing in Oscar-nominated films like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Ray, both alongside Jamie Foxx. In Ray, Washington plays Ray Charles' second wife Della Bea Robinson, and neither she nor co-star Regina King were recognized for their work in the biopic. Washington and King have both since focused on their television careers: Washington stars in Shonda Rhimes' Scandal, King in American Crime.
Ziyi Zhang, Memoirs Of A Geisha, 2005
Memoirs of a Geisha was nominated for six Oscars. It won three. Among them, not a single award was considered for its cast anchored by Ziyi Zhang, though Zhang was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress that year. At the 78th Oscars, every Best Actress nominee was white.
Rosario Dawson, Seven Pounds, 2008
Seven Pounds accrued a fair amount of Oscar buzz around the time of its release — it stars Will Smith, after all, a notable Oscar favorite — and yet it failed to receive any nominations. This was particularly striking for its female lead, Rosario Dawson. Dawson has since focused on her television career, recurring in Marvel's Daredevil and even crossing over with Jessica Jones.
Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008
Slumdog Millionaire was Pinto's first feature role, and a breakout one at that. Yet, while Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for most elements of its composition, its stars Pinto and Dev Patel were both overlooked.
Octavia Spencer And Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station, 2013
Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan's first collaboration, pre-Creed, was 2013's Fruitvale Station, which depicts the death of Oscar Grant III at the hands of police officers in a BART station in San Francisco, received near-universal audience acclaim yet failed to rake in Oscar nominations come awards season. Particularly overlooked were supporting cast members Octavia Spencer and Melanie Diaz, who portray Grant's mother and girlfriend, respectively. They're modest roles, but both actresses make the most of the material and demonstrate the reeling shock of a young man's wrongful death as felt by those closest to him.
Ava DuVernay, Selma, 2014
DuVernay directed David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Common, and Carmen Ejogo in Selma, which offers a glimpse into an embattled Martin Luther King, Jr. as he leads one of the most historic Civil Rights Movement marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabam. Selma was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song (which it won), overlooking DuVernay and her talented cast for Best Director and various acting prizes.
Viola Davis crystallized the struggle confronting women of color on screen during her Emmy acceptance speech last year: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," she said. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." But these names, and the many more not included here, show that even where there are roles, there's often no recognition. Last year, Mashable reported that no Native Americans have ever been nominated for or received an Oscar. Few women of indigenous descent have been recognized for awards at all: Maori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for Whale Rider in 2002, but lost to Charlize Theron's role as Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
There's also been a shift in respect for screen media that has allowed actors to easily move between television and film, where those two worlds were previously kept at odds; talented actors like Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson have recently fled to television, which has traditionally offered a more welcoming landscape, and more roles, for women of color. Maybe one day the voters of the Academy will look back on snubs for Kerry Washington and Ava DuVernay with the same tinge of remorse as they view Leonardo DiCaprio's Titanic snub, but that will require a paradigm shift including women of color at all levels of the industry, spanning from writing a script right up to to awards season.
Images: Paramount Pictures; Miramax Films (2); Warner Bros. Pictures (2); Universal Pictures (2); New Line Cinema; Columbia Pictures (2); The Weinstein Company