The black Oscar wins that got away | Peter Bradshaw

The shadow of possible Academy prejudice has loomed large over this year’s awards. So which black actors were unjustly snubbed? Whose great performance went unrewarded? The Guardian’s chief film critic on the ones that got away

In 1992, conservative critic Michael Medved published a book about the movies with a title of pure provocative genius – Hollywood vs America. He took two concepts widely assumed to be synonymous and bashed their heads together. Hollywood, he said, was run by a bunch of permissive liberals whose values were at odds with mainstream American decency. (It was a sort of post-Reaganite cultural version of today’s leftie cry of Wall Street versus Main Street.)

Today, the #Oscarsowhite movement is arguing loudly that, in racial terms at least, the Academy Awards – still America’s most revered peacock display of cultural prestige – is about as progressive as a fundraising dinner for Barry Goldwater. Last year and this year, there wasn’t one black person in any of the 20 acting categories. And no black man or woman has ever won best director.

The subject of diversity and the Academy Awards is never mentioned without invoking the name of Hattie McDaniel, the African American star who was the first black woman to win an Oscar – a best supporting actress award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, was hosting the event in 1940, and had to be persuaded to suspend its segregationist policy for the evening to allow McDaniel in.

Hattie McDaniel receives her best supporting actress Oscar from Fay Bainter, February 1940.
Hattie McDaniel receives her Oscar from Fay Bainter, 1940. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

She was mortifyingly not allowed to sit at the main Gone with the Wind table with Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland, but at a side table. And then she was typecast as the maid 74 more times, and had the feeling that her success was being held against her in some way.

From that day to this, there has been a suspicion that black success at the Academy Awards happens in a subordinate and outlying sense.

But what might happen if the past was changed in some ways? What if we climbed into our time machine and went back and changed some of the results to give victory to the black nominees? As it happens, posterity makes a powerful argument that some performances could, or should, have been winners.

Here are some might-have-beens...

Best director

John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Still from Boyz n the Hood. Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1562171a)

In this reality, it’s Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence Of The Lambs, who has to do the good loser face, while John Singleton, the youngest-ever director nominee, bounds up on stage to grab the statuette, to an eruption from the audience. It’s a sensational win for this director and for this film, which makes a powerful attempt to represent the new reality of the ghetto and what it means for young black men.

Lee Daniels for Precious (2009)

A still from Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire

Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker, must applaud good-naturedly , as Lee Daniels makes his genial way up to collect the best director statuette for Precious, a raucously emotional, crowd-pleasing, crowd-moving picture. It tells the story of an illiterate and abused teen who enrolls in an alternative school. Daniels’s tumultuous Oscar win focuses attention on women’s issues of weight, self-esteem and self-image, and Daniels is widely praised for this forthright handling of this material.

Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen with his best picture Oscar.
Steve McQueen with his best picture Oscar. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov / Barcroft Media

Actually, Steve McQueen did not win the director Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, but at the evening’s climax accepted the best picture Oscar in his capacity as co-producer. Would things have been that different if McQueen had won, and made Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity, stay in his seat when his name as best director was read out? Perhaps not. But it might have given McQueen a more direct tribute, and emphasise more clearly his authorial and creative status. At any rate, this powerful picture helped to break modern Hollywood’s taboo on the subject of slavery.

Best actor

James Earl Jones for The Great White Hope (1970)

Instead of George C Scott refusing a best actor for Patton, James Earl Jones accepts it for his performance in a film explicitly about racial conflict and white paranoia. He plays a fictional version of the black boxer Jack Johnson, beating every opponent, black and white. Humiliated racists and press pundits yearn for a “great white hope” to defeat him and when that doesn’t work, they seize on a way to destroy him through his personal life – his relationship with a white woman. James Earl Jones’s victory at the Oscars ensures that succeeding generations realise he is not just a gorgeous voice.

Paul Winfield for Sounder (1972)

What would happen if Native American campaigner Sacheen Littlefeather – authorised by Marlon Brando to refuse any Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf – had been forced to stay in her seat? And instead the Academy had honoured Paul Winfield for Sounder? It’s the story of a black family of sharecroppers in the Great Depression (Sounder is the name of their dog). Winfield played the father, sent to prison camp for the petty theft of food, and he must finally tell his son that he must break away from the family if he wants to better himself through education. It was a performance that everyone found devastatingly emotional. An Oscar for Winfield’s performance might have advanced the debate around race. He was admired by Martin Luther King Jr’s widow Coretta Scott King and went on to play King himself.

Dexter Gordon for Round Midnight (1986)

This was the year Paul Newman won best actor for Scorsese’s The Color of Money – a plausible enough choice, but not the best performance of Newman’s career. How much more interesting if the Academy had given the Oscar to another nominee, Dexter Gordon, for his portrayal of the fictional jazz sax legend Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight. Turner is playing clubs in 50s Paris and battling with alcoholism, but finds a redemptive friendship with a young French fan, played by François Cluzet. Gordon was himself a legendary jazz musician and not a trained actor, but he is at ease on screen; his hoarse, slow delivery has its own kind of musicality and he is a commanding presence. If ever there was a time for the Academy to give best actor to a non-professional this was it – something to compare with the best supporting actor Oscar that Cambodian doctor Haing S Ngor won for The Killing Fields. It would also have been a way of honoring the vital and enormous African American contribution to American culture in the form of jazz.

Morgan Freeman for The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Perhaps you thought that Morgan Freeman was the winner – actually it went to Tom Hanks playing the notorious Holy Fool, Forrest Gump. But would things have been different if Freeman had won it? In this famous prison movie, based on the 1982 Stephen King novella, he is the hero’s friend Red and the film’s narrator; his utterly distinctive voice confers a kind of wisdom on the whole movie. Maybe an actual win for Freeman would have meant – along with much-merited praise – a more concerted discussion around the way black characters keep getting cast in essentially sacrificial or subordinate roles, which mean that their wisdom is something to be offered up for the white character’s personal journey. An Oscar might have been a way of summarising this tendency, but also encouraging screenwriters to develop away from it. Of course, Freeman might have won if he had been entered in the supporting category, but his character is surely important enough for the main prize.

Best actress

Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones (1954)

Dandridge was in good company among the also-rans that year – Audrey Hepburn for Sabrina, Judy Garland for A Star is Born and Jane Wyman for Magnificent Obsession. The winner was Grace Kelly in The Country Girl; not something for the hall of fame. Dandridge’s Carmen Jones was widely lauded as passionate, vibrant, sexy and confrontational. An Oscar for Dandridge might have made her an imperishable star.

Diahann Carroll for Claudine (1974)

In the real world, Ellen Burstyn won for her performance in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – incidentally beating out Faye Dunaway, up for Chinatown. But how about if it went to Diahann Carroll for Claudine? This is a big emotional drama, with strains of good-natured comedy, focusing on relationships and family. Claudine is a single black woman with six children, who has to conceal from the welfare inspectors any income she may be receiving from odd jobs or indeed support from boyfriends. It’s a role for a strong African American woman taking the lead, and an Oscar for Diahann Carroll could have struck a blow for intersectionality before that term was current.

Angela Bassett for What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)

This was the year that Holly Hunter won for The Piano – a mannered performance in a very classy, literary film about which I am a bit agnostic. Getting Angela Bassett up on stage would have given the Academy audience something simpler, but possibly more powerfully energetic and direct. Bassett played a fictionalised version of Tina Turner, but always insisted that the film was in essence correct, including the way she was abused by husband Ike. This would have been an Oscar to honour a powerful figure in the music industry and a strong black woman.

Viola Davis for The Help (2011)

So how far have we come since Hattie McDaniel’s win at the Oscars? The 2011 Oscar best actress Oscar went to Meryl Streep for her bells-and-whistles impersonation of Margaret Thatcher. What about if it went to Viola Davis instead in this story of black domestic staff in civil rights era America? Well, it might have reawakened the debate that attended our fantasy award to Freeman for The Shawshank Redemption. Davis plays Aibileen, the black nanny and friend of the white lead (Emma Stone), and she is the all-wise narrator. A win for Davis might have re-focused attention more clearly on race, on the coy euphemism of that phrase “the help” – as opposed to “the servants”. But it might also have underscored a new argument: that this is a tradition that should be reclaimed by black studies and black history, something to show that African Americans were decent, hardworking and aspirational, preparing the way for their children to go to college and enter careers other than service.

Best supporting actor

Howard E Rollins Jr for Ragtime (1981)


John Gielgud got it for his outrageous scene-stealer as Dudley Moore’s droll butler in Arthur. Ragtime was Milos Foreman’s much admired and awarded movie version of the EL Doctorow novel, and Howard Rollins was up for his supporting role as Coalhouse Walker, the brash and undeferential father of an abandoned baby on whom a prosperous white family takes pity, along with the baby’s mother. Rollins was a hugely admired and accomplished actor – who also starred in A Soldier’s Story (see below). Would an Oscar for him have changed his life? As things stood, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, which led to him being fired from the TV version of In the Heat of the Night. An Oscar might have steered Rollins away from that – or just make it happen more quickly. Whatever the truth, an Oscar for Rollins might have been just as worthwhile as Gielgud’s prize.

Adolph Caesar for A Soldier’s Story (1984)

This was the year non-professional actor Dr Haing Ngor won (see above). But how about A Soldier’s Story, a powerful, muscular film from director Norman Jewison about that great unmentionable: segregation. Caesar plays a black US army sergeant who is murdered: Howard Rollins – to whom I have already given a fictional Oscar for Ragtime – plays the investigating officer who is obstructed at every turn. An Oscar for Adolph Caesar might have boosted this movie: something to be compared to A Few Good Men.

Samuel L Jackson for Pulp Fiction (1994)

What a lively year 1994 was for supporting actor nominations, and I hugely enjoyed Paul Scofield’s performance in Quiz Show and Martin Landau’s in Ed Wood (the ultimate winner). But an Oscar for Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction would honour a performance which is just iconic, part of movie history. He drew on blaxploitation history and reinvented it, creating a black male role which was beyond “strong”. A comic masterpiece. His acceptance speech would also surely have been a marvel.

Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls (2006)

This may not have been a vintage year for best supporting nominees and the memory of Alan Arkin’s winner for the overpraised Little Miss Sunshine is already, I suspect, a little clouded. In retrospect I would have preferred to see an Oscar for Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls (Jennifer Hudson won best supporting actress for this film) playing James “Thunder” Early, a volatile singer with similarities to James Brown. On first release, I found myself underwhelmed by the way that part was written, but on a second viewing his performance had energy and consistency. An Oscar for Murphy would be something to honour a terrific comic who created a distinctive Hollywood career for himself.

Best supporting actress

Juanita Moore for Imitation of Life (1959)

If I really could go back in time and change one single Academy Award it would be to remove the statuette gently but firmly from the hands of Shelley Winters (the winner for The Diary of Anne Frank) and give it instead to Juanita Moore, nominated for her wonderful performance in this movie, directed by Douglas Sirk. In its way, it goes to the heart of the diversity issue more directly and powerfully than anything else. Again, it’s a maid role: she is Annie, a single mother who gets a job as “help” to Lana Turner, a widow and would-be actress with a young child herself. But the point is that Annie’s daughter has very fair skin, and grows up wanting to “pass” for white. Racial identity assumes tragic dimensions in this utterly absorbing movie and Moore is superb.

Alfre Woodard for Cross Creek (1983)

Cross Creek

Alfre Woodard is a powerful, vibrant acting presence who has won a string of awards in her career, including Emmys, SAG awards and a Golden Globe, and dozens of screen credits, including 12 Years a Slave. It would have been good for Woodard to convert her best supporting actress nomination for Cross Creek into an Oscar. (It actually went to Linda Hunt, for The Year of Living Dangerously.) Woodard is Geechee, a local Florida woman who helps Mary Steenburgen’s author, Marjorie Rawlings, fix up her dilapidated house. This was her breakout role.

Margaret Avery for The Color Purple (1985)

Margaret Avery’s performance in the key role of the singer Shug Avery in Spielberg’s The Color Purple is much admired, fondly remembered and Academy Award-nominated for best supporting actress. When Oscar night rolled around, the prize went to Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor. Oprah Winfrey was also nominated for The Color Purple. It is inconceivable that an Oscar for Winfrey would have made much difference to her remarkable career – or that her acting turn in The Color Purple was all that memorable. But an Oscar for Avery might have been something to savour.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste for Secrets & Lies (1996)

Juliette Binoche got it that year for the all-conquering The English Patient. Not her best performance by a long way. How much more interesting and exciting for this prize to go to Marianne Jean-Baptiste for her outstanding performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. She is Hortense: the surname is Cumberbatch, incidentally, in an era before that name went global. Hortense is an optometrist who tracks down her birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) – only to find that she is white. It really is a great performance in a film which is about race, but not confined to race. Jean-Baptiste’s performance is unshowy, intelligent, deeply felt.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Golden Globes 2014: a strong list that makes me look forward to Oscar night

Peter Bradshaw: Despite the odd surprise, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has come up with a good set of nominations – it's shaping up for an interesting awards season

Peter Bradshaw

12, Dec, 2013 @4:22 PM

Article image
12 Years a Slave 'could be a game changer for black directors'
Oscar academy's first black president says movie could help loosen white dominance

Barry Neild

22, Feb, 2014 @9:07 PM

Article image
What #OscarsSoWhite got right – and wrong
Voter prejudice is shouldering much of the blame for the Academy Awards’ lack of diversity. But who is really responsible?

David Cox

26, Feb, 2016 @9:40 AM

Article image
Steve McQueen on the Oscars whitewash: ‘I’m hoping we can look back and say this was a watershed moment’
The only black director to win best picture, says change has to happen now. He talks about Hollywood apartheid, being written off as a young black teenager, and his friendship with Kanye West

Steve Rose

24, Jan, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
Lupita Nyong'o wins best supporting actress Oscar

Kenyan actor in her debut film carries off Academy award for harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave

Andrew Pulver

03, Mar, 2014 @3:14 AM

Article image
Will Steve McQueen become the first black film-maker to win an Oscar for best director?

A gong for the 12 Years a Slave nominee would come after a year of real progress for black film-makers, but history shows how illusive such breakthroughs have been, writes Andrew Pulver

Andrew Pulver

17, Jan, 2014 @6:23 PM

Article image
Readers suggest the 10 best Oscar snubs
Last week we brought you our pick of the 10 best Oscar snubs. Here you suggest what other films should have taken the prize

Observer readers

03, Mar, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Oscar predictions 2014: 12 Years a Slave

Continuing our daily series that looks ahead to the key movies of the 2014 awards season. Next up: 12 Years a Slave

Xan Brooks

21, Aug, 2013 @1:59 PM

Article image
Mo'Nique: I'm 'difficult', 'tacky' and was blackballed after Oscar win
Precious star who won best supporting actress award five years ago says Hollywood has shunned her for being ‘tactless’ and that parts in subsequent Lee Daniels movies were offered to her then given to Oprah Winfrey

Ben Child

19, Feb, 2015 @8:13 AM

Article image
12 Years a Slave set to sweep Oscar nominations

Steve McQueen's slavery drama, currently top of the UK box office, is expected to clean up when the Academy Awards nominations are announced today

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

16, Jan, 2014 @9:11 AM