Today is the last day of February, which also means it’s the last day of this year’s Black History Month. Most entertainment sites front-load their Black History Month pieces at the beginning of the month (if they touch the subject at all), so I wanted to spread things out a bit and wait until the last day of the month before publishing this piece, just to help lengthen the conversation.
The history of black actors in Hollywood films is a long and contentious one, and as many of you probably know, some of the earliest portrayals of African-Americans on film weren’t even black actors at all – they were white actors in blackface. Such was the case in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a movie that made innovative technological leaps forward in filmmaking but sparked protests because of its content; rightly so, considering how it was essentially a giant commercial for the KKK. (It was literally used as a recruiting tool for that organization.) In an effort to take some level of control over how they were portrayed at the movies, the black community began producing “race films,” projects featuring all-black casts intended for all-black audiences.
Twenty five years later, a black actress finally won an Academy Award. Hattie McDaniel, who starred in a ton of race films, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for her role as a house servant in Gone with the Wind. (Not exactly a progressive part, but I suppose some progress is better than none at all.) Twenty-three years after that, the first Best Actor Oscar was awarded to a black actor – Sidney Poitier, for his work in Lilies of the Field. Strides have been made in recent years – Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer winning Best Supporting Actress back-to-back was a high point, and Lupita Nyong’o could continue that streak with a win this Sunday for her work in 12 Years A Slave – but anyone delusional enough to think that the playing field has been completely leveled when it comes to opportunities in Hollywood is sorely mistaken.
Talking about this disparity can only bring more attention to the issue and hopefully even things out over time. But in honor of Black History Month, I want to showcase a few of my personal favorite performances by black actors and actresses over the years.
Pam Grier – Jackie Brown
Morgan Freeman – The Shawshank Redemption
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
Viola Davis – The Help
Denzel Washington – Glory
James Earl Jones – Field of Dreams
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