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In 1940, at the 12th ever Academy Awards ceremony, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to be nominated for an Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of “Mammy” in David O. Selznick’s Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind. She won. Before the Voting Rights Act, when separate was still considered equal under the eyes of the law, here was Hollywood, taking a stand in the name of progress and inclusion, loudly proclaiming that artistic merit knew no color.
The next Black Supporting Actress nomination came a decade later. The third came a decade after that. The next Black person to win an Oscar would be Sidney Poitier in 1964. The next Black woman to win in either acting categories wouldn’t come until 1990. The first Black Best Director nominee had to wait until 1991 (there’s been a total of six nominees ever, to date). The 20th century as a whole was a bleak one for the Academy’s recognition of Black accomplishment in film. Each major category — both above and below the line — have a smattering of nominees per decade, with years passing between nominations.
In 2015, a “lifelong film enthusiast” named April Reign, appalled that all 20 acting nominations were awarded to white men and women, tweeted the hashtag #Oscarssowhite, and the cause of Black recognition in film at last was armed with a mobilizing tool to provoke a stagnant body to take action after generations of comfortably ignoring an obvious problem. Change has begun to present itself, with a widening inclusion in the diversity of the Academy’s voting block, and the types of films and performances that are beginning to gain recognition and attention reflect that. It’s a slow moving process, but it’s at least begun.
That does little to make up for the century Hollywood spent asleep at the wheel, as generations of great films, and the great work that went into them, went largely ignored and unrecognized. So, for fun, and for justice, let’s reach back into history to reflect on and discuss some of those films and performances that were unfairly ignored, and right some historical wrongs.
This exercise covers 50 years in Black American film, dating back to 1972, and is focusing on work I consider the best of a given year in a given category. It’s not enough to be “good enough” or “just” worthy of a nomination. The performances are ranked in an extremely subjective order, based on the blatant outrageousness of the snub, in considering not just how deserving a performance was, but how much better it was than the eventual winner (i.e. Regina Hall’s snub for Best Lead Actress in Support the Girls in favor of Olivia Coleman in The Favourite comes in above Best Director nominee Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave loss to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, because the achievement gap between Hall and Coleman is greater than McQueen and Cuaron’s). Also, in the interest of diversity, to give us an opportunity to discuss the widest sample size of deserving performances, covering the most films and the most categories, I limited myself to one entrant per movie, and one entry per performer.
I’m no expert; not a film scholar or a critic — just a nerd who watches a lot of movies. I probably forgot not just some worthy Black films and performances that weren’t nominated, but also films that the Oscars ignored that weren’t pertinent to this list that would get in the way of a given argument. And then there’s the question of taste. This is a list (the most subjective of mediums) and you may think the great Alfre Woodard was better in Passionfish than Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, but I didn’t. Composing a list with this level of ambition is a fool’s errand. It’s intended as a conversation starter. I would love, if you feel a film or performance was deserving, or disagree with one of my assessments or rankings, to take your gripes online and start that conversation.
On a final note, there will surely be some entries on this list the reader may balk at that could come off as perhaps, ridiculous or even offensive to snobs. For generations, we’ve had the ideas and definitions of quality and prestige in film made for us by an institution composed nearly entirely of white men who naturally awarded movies and performances that catered to their tastes and experiences, and that flattered and reaffirmed their world views. It’s why I suspect some of these candidates will strike the reader as absurd. And I’d like to emphatically respond: that’s Hollywood and its established norms, its standard of classically white-anglo excellence fucking with you. What I’d ask of the reader is to suspend that inclination.
25. Herbie Hancock, The Spook Who Sat by the Door — Best Original Score over Marvin Hamlisch, The Way We Were (1973)
This spot probably belongs to Quincy Jones, an all-time great in the field, but for a number of reasons involving the eligible window for this exercise, and circumstance, I couldn’t justify a slot in the top 25. So we’ll have to “settle” for giving the award to Jones’ longtime friend and jazz great in his own right, Herbie Hancock with his skeletal, propulsive score for Ivan Dixon’s subversive classic, over Hamlisch’s cloying nostalgia porn.
24. Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues — Best Lead Actress over Liza Minnelli, Cabaret (1972)
I imagine this could be a vaguely controversial choice. Ross looked nothing like Billie Holiday in this biopic, and brought her own interpretation to Holiday’s singing voice, which is understandable as she is probably the most unique and gifted vocalist whoever lived. But for me, there’s something to be said for a musical performance in which the actor is doing their own singing. She brings something prettier (not necessarily a compliment) to Holiday’s vocals but you slip into her interpretation, which is very good and impressive in its own right.
23. Jurnee Smollett, Eve’s Bayou — Best Supporting Actress over Kim Basinger, LA Confidential (1997)
Acknowledging this is for a weird and extraordinarily fucked up movie. It’s supernatural for some reason? It’s about infidelity and incest? Supreme Daddy issues? The unreliability of memory? Not really sure what the point of anything that happens is because the ending is so bizarre, but Smollett is undeniable. A truly exceptional child actor performance. Easily outclasses the actual winner, Kim Basinger, which was a glorified cameo performance.
22. Richard Pryor, Blue Collar — Best Supporting Actor over Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter (1978)
We never really got to see Pryor at his best. If you do his career over a few times, in at least one multiversal outcome he becomes among the great actors of his generation. The industry is partly to blame for a lack of opportunity (he was denied the leading role in the classic Western comedy he wrote with Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles), but he also made bad decisions, probably taking paychecks to perform in half baked pieces of shit. But Blue Collar showed his tremendous potential. The charisma and wise ass star quality is on 10, playing off Harvey Keitel and another actor I wish I had space for on this list, the great Yaphet Kotto. But Pryor wins it for me in the third act, turning heel, going slippery and taciturn, betraying his friends, pragmatically choosing self interest over union solidarity.
21. Barry Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy — Best Original Screenplay over Dustin Lance Black, Milk (2009)
Milk, which one the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2009, is a great film, but a pretty paint by numbers biopic grounded in a tremendous Sean Penn performance. Barry Jenkins put the world on notice with this indie anti-rom com by way of Linklater about a Black couple thrown together in one of the most segregated cities in America. It came at a time before the city was bought and sold to tech, but Jenkins’ prescient, mournful script identified The City early on as a breeding ground for late stage, corrosive gentrification that provoked resentment and deep alienation in its communities of color.
20. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave — Best Director over Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (2013)
I understand why it happens, but I don’t love the Best Director, Best Picture split. Particularly in cases like these, with a historical issue trauma film like 12 Years, it obscures the incredible work McQueen did in what is now probably misremembered by most as rote Oscar bait in a challenging film few care to revisit. Alfonso Cuarón is one of my all-time favorites, but Gravity is far from his best work. It’s beautiful and well shot, but more a technical than artistic achievement, respectfully. Now, and for the rest of my life, when I think of 12 Years, I still think about that closeup on the bar of soap, or the unbearable three minutes we spend with Solomon, trying to stay alive by tip-toeing back and forth with a noose cinched around his neck, while people go about their day in the background.
19. Lakeith Stanfield, Judas & The Black Messiah — Best Supporting Actor over Daniel Kaluuya, Judas & The Black Messiah (2020)
On one hand we have Daniel Kaluuya, a 30-year-old Englishman who bears no resemblance to the 19-year-old from Chicago he’s portraying doing a diet Saturday Night Live impression of Fred Hampton that sounds like Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop, and on the other we have a cokey, nasty, live wire performance from Stanfield, who has a thankless and less showy roll he absolutely kills in the margins. He’s such a gifted comedic performer, and he has to weaponize that in this role without tipping into outright comedy or the movie (and script with a lot of holes) doesn’t work. But it does whenever he’s on screen.
18. Ryan Coogler, Creed — Best Director over Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant (2015)
I know Alejandro G. Iñárritu went full Werner Herzog and finally got Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar for The Revenant, but I think years later we can agree the movie is fine at best. Ryan Coogler, on the other hand, delivers one of the great reclamations of franchise IP, an incredible popcorn boxing flick with a massive beating heart, and on a technical level, the best unbroken in-ring scenes since Raging Bull.
17. DMX, Belly — Best Supporting Actor over James Coburn, Affliction (1998)
I come here not to bury winner James Coburn for his performance in Affliction, but to praise X. You know all the beats in both scene chewing roles, but if you watch Tommy, even when he’s on the margins of the scene, even when he’s sitting and eating at a restaurant, he never stops moving. There’s a cadence in his line delivery, a dancing restlessness to every moment on camera. He’s talking with his hands, uprocking while standing in place, his line deliveries are practically sung (“I don’t know no fucking Kiana!” could easily have been a hook, and probably is even now if you have any friends named Kiana). What he brings to the part isn’t Al Pacino’s smoldering resentment, or Tupac’s gleeful sociopathology, but a sort of neuroatypical hyperactivity, a ravenous itch for stimulus, the classic New York guy with nervous energy who could hug you or punch you in the face at any moment and is generally just kind of uncomfortable to be around. His Tommy suggests that the solution to some of these gangster figures’ problems may not be a robust welfare state, or a present father figure, but Ritalin. It’s a surprising wrinkle, where Coburn is largely rote.
16. Killer of Sheep — Best Picture over The Deer Hunter (1978)
Charles Burnett is one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and the example of how the 20th Century crushed Black film. Killer Of Sheep was a fucking student film, Burnett’s thesis at the UCLA School of Film, and it’s an indelible masterpiece. Burnett borrows from postwar neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini and sets his Germany, Year Zero in Watts, where a Black family is struggling under the yoke of poverty and systemic racism. The film is as raw, touching, disorienting, depressed and inventive as life itself, framing children flying over rooftops with their parents grounded below, it’s a potent blend of verite journalism and surrealist commentary. Due to clearance issues with the soundtrack, it was never widely released. Burnett was subsequently, unfairly suppressed, releasing a handful of movies well spread apart throughout his career. He deserved all the opportunities and accolades lesser filmmakers got as he waited. There’s no world in which this film ever could’ve been up for Best Picture, but it absolutely deserved it.
15. Terrence Blanchard, She Hate Me — Best Original Score over Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Finding Neverland (2004)
Blanchard is one of our great modern film composers, right there with Hans Zimmer and John Williams. Like those giants, he has a signature. When you hear the mournful tone he coaxes from his horn — as if “Psalm” on A Love Supreme never ended — you know you’re watching a Spike Lee film with Blanchard on the track. But She Hate Me offers Blanchard in his other register, a warm, fat and stirring waltz that recalls something ancient, the rich orchestral scores of old Hollywood that would get three minutes to play in the beginning of films before the action began. Don’t let a half baked, minor Spike film obscure its brilliance.
14. Alfre Woodard, Crooklyn — Best Lead Actress over Jessica Lang, Blue Sky (1994)
An example of an actor being perfectly utilized at long last. Alfre Woodard’s specialty is projecting a dignified, near regal air of standoffish strength. Never more so than in Spike’s In Search of Lost Time jukebox musical as a mother who rules an overstuffed roost with tough love, doing her best to run a tight ship and prepare her children for a cold and hostile world.
13. Will Smith, Ali — Best Actor over Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001)
Training Day is obviously an iconic part, and the Oscar only burnished the performance, but it’s far from Denzel Washington’s best. It’s a hammy movie star part that he crushes, but Alonzo Harris is a heightened cartoon played to the gallery, laid on with a paint roller. The circumstances of his win, and the more worthy performance he won over, is nearly identical to the Oscar Al Pacino stole from Denzel in 92 (we’ll be revisiting later). Ali is one of the more underrated, misunderstood films in both Michael Mann and Will Smith’s careers. The film uses a particularly turbulent moment in the great boxer’s life to make a larger, layered point about the chaos and uncertainty of the Civil Rights Movement. And Smith, who yes, is in boxing shape, and nails the intonation and patter of his subject, turns in a surprising interpretation that complicates if not outright contradicts our image of one of the world’s most famous figures, painting him as introverted and melancholic when the cameras are off, serious and mistrustful, unsure in which direction to turn as he’s beset on all sides. This characterization wasn’t necessarily on the “page” with Ali, and the imagination and execution made this what is still Smith’s best work in a long, rich career.
12. Eddie Murphy, Trading Places — Best Actor over Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies (1983)
Eddie Murphy obviously deserves an Oscar, but it’s tough work getting him one, a statement I feel comfortable making as America’s foremost Eddie Murphy scholar. What’s criminal is the lack of nominations. He had to wait until 2007 for his first, and still was snubbed. But perhaps appropriately, arguably Eddie’s best pound for pound film, this John Landis class satire, equal parts goofy and brilliant, gets the nod. It’s a phenomenal Murphy showcase, as he’s scamming and improvising and scheming throughout the runtime. Robert Duvall would win this Oscar for his performance in Tender Mercies. Let’s give Tom Hagen the Oscar he deserved, and shift this one to Eddie, and cure two violations with one motion.
11. Bradford Young, Arrival — Best Cinematography over Linus Sandgren, La La Land (2016)
Bradford Young was mentored by Haile Gerima at Howard, and he has three of the most beautifully shot films of the decade in this, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and my personal favorite, David Lowery’s gorgeous, Malickian Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Unfortunately pitted that year against Emmanuel Luzbeki in what must have been an incredibly tall task for Gravity). He has a wide range, but what ties his work together are his floating, poetic compositions. Some would say I’m nuts and the pick-me, hyper orchestrated bubblegum shots in the Oscar winner La La Land got the distinction they deserved, but Arrival is a different kind of impressive, an oneiric tone poem full of scale and mystery, alien but grounded in elemental human connection. And frankly, there’s something I love about the idea of using this list to steal an Oscar from a Swedish guy for a film about white people evangelizing the purity of jazz.
10. Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction — Supporting Actor over Martin Landau, Ed Wood (1994)
Quentin Tarantino gets a lot of love for his tremendous casting jobs, and his best was arguably his sophomore, world changing genre cipher. Much of the praise and attention went to his reclamation of John Travolta, but the real miracle was his screen partner, as Samuel L. Jackson — an already veteran character actor in 1994 — got the showcase he so rightfully deserved, and absolutely crushed. Jules gave Jackson the ability to display all the qualities that have made him the most durable and employed actor in Hollywood over 40 years: His wit and sly humor, his quick trigger anger always simmering just below the surface, his commanding volume, his righteous self-respect, and his soulful sensitivity.
9. Dead Presidents — Best Picture over Braveheart (1995)
Let’s talk about Vietnam films. All post ‘Nam movies are essentially conveying the same message: the deflowered collective consciousness coming to grips with the devaluing of American life in service of the senseless blood soaked machinery of American Capitalism fueled by Imperialism. What Dead Presidents brings into stark contrast, in comparison with a film like, say, The Deer Hunter, is the only true way to understand and explain that cost is through the Black American experience. The Hughes Brothers didn’t need a cheap, racist, implausible and historically inaccurate device like a Russian Roulette round robin tournament to confront the disposability of American existence. All Chris Tucker and Larenz Tate had to do was be Black men growing up in the Bronx mid century to understand that. Vietnam helped a generation finally gain wisdom Black Americans had passed down for centuries. The tragedy of the film is Tate believes he can erase this status with bravery, heroism, and duty for country. When he comes home, he sees how inherently evil and ruthless, how implacable the system actually is. It’s what makes the critique real and devastating without the window dressing and fireworks, and what makes Dead Presidents the superior film. What’s unfortunate is it came in a wave of excellent Black films made by a crop of promising young Black filmmakers that were dismissed and ghettoized as “genre” in the ’90s. Of course, with films from this period as diverse as Poetic Justice, Friday, Menace to Society, and this one, the only conceivable genre they all could fall under is “Films that were made by Black folks”.
8. Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat — Best Actor over Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996)
Julian Schnabel’s complicated love & hate letter to his departed peer, friend, and rival is a great interrogation of merit in the artworld. But it couldn’t exist without Jeffrey Wright, who isn’t technically making his film debut here, but it was the former stage star’s official coming out party as one of the major talents of his generation. Basquiat makes for an extremely difficult invocation. He has a dreamy, halting intonation that would’ve been very easy to turn into a joke. But Wright loads each pause with intention and pathos, his Basquiat is brought to life, often frustrated, calculating, ambitious, and resentful as he nurses old wounds. Wright himself wasn’t happy with Schnabel’s edit, but he doesn’t have to be. He did masterful work.
7. Regina Hall, Support the Girls — Best Actress over Olivia Coleman, The Favourite (2018)
This one drives me to a place of near blind anger, not just because Regina Hall was completely shut out of the category, but because the eventual winner was the beneficiary of a clear case of category fraud: it’s a supporting role, probably third billing. Hall, on the other hand, is front and center in almost every frame, delivering a full of grace career best performance in this seedy American Breaking the Waves for the objectified, front of house set. Bujalski’s best work is a character sketch and commentary on an industry that hit just as a major reckoning was occurring. But it doesn’t land without Hall, who parlayed The Scary Movie franchise into a remarkable career as one of our most consistent and hardest working actors across genres.
6. Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Hollywood Shuffle — Best Original Screenplay over John Patrick Shanley, Moonstruck (1987)
Something that got lost when the Wayans brand of spoof cinema was transformed into its own genre, is that their oeuvre is grounded in criticism. They are movies about movies, that at a distance, land somewhere between bemused, disappointed and angry with lazy and sloppy film. The origins of Keenan’s spoof films, critiquing the genres many Black creatives were forced into by a Hollywood system that hoarded their own boxes of prestige (namely: Blaxploitation, “The Hood Melodrama”, and Horror) are films that look around their industry and demand better. But it starts here, with Wayans and writer/director/star Robert Townsend’s self financed searing critique, a subversive, frustrated film about that act of Black siloing. Hollywood has always wrestled with satire (though in the case of Peter Sellers in Strangelove, Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, and, uh, fuck, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, there’s a precedence… for white actors) confusing Hollywood Shuffle as an outright spoof and ignoring its potent main narrative following a talented, decent Black actor trying to start a career and maintain his dignity in an industry designed to strip it away. But what made the film and screenplay so groundbreaking was its heightened vignette structure, a variety show buried in a film (with traces of Robert Downey Sr.’s experimental advertising industry satire Putney Swope). Little wonder it wound up parenting a variety show and over a decade of films that walked in its footsteps.
5. Spike Lee, Bamboozled — Best Director over Ridley Scott, Gladiator (2000)
A major upset here. Do The Right Thing is, of course, a masterpiece and one of the best films ever made. But the better technical accomplishment, the more miraculous feat, was arguably this thorny, embittered satire, what I would call Spike’s best “mid-late period” film. Bamboozled is an impossible high wire act. It’s a petty, absurd film that absolutely should not work. And yet, it does. It’s powerful, channeling Ellison in its anger, taking its time with even its most heightened roles. It’s a supremely fucked up that makes you viscerally feel Lee’s anger, and will make you angry on his behalf.
4. Ruth E. Carter, Do The Right Thing — Best Costume Design over Phyllis Dalton, Henry V (1989)
Do The Right Thing is essentially a filmed stage play. You could imagine it on Broadway (or at least, Spike has), taking place on a single block over the course of a day. The characters are, like many Spike characters, symbolic and serve as mouth pieces for their writer director. Much of what we know about these characters are expressed in costume, provided by Ruth E. Carter, who toiled for 30 years on over 40 films before becoming the first Black person to win in the category for her Afro-futurist costuming on Coogler’s Black Panther. Do The Right Thing was just her third film, and still might be her best work. Every fit is iconic. Rosie Perez, both in boxing garb and a red dress, as well as Bill Gunn as Radio Raheem, are obvious choices, but the teens led by Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out, Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, the asshole in a Larry Bird jersey, every outfit tells a story before a single line delivery.
3. Pam Grier, Jackie Brown — Best Actress over Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets (1997)
Another phenomenal pull by Tarantino, reaching back into the Blaxploitation past he was raised on and grabbing its brightest star, Foxy Brown herself. Grier is still a fucking smoke show just shy of 50 in this film, acting her ass off in a slightly melancholy performance as a flight attendant mired in a life that hasn’t worked out how she’d hoped it might and wondering if it’s too late for her to do anything about it. The gravitas, the poise, the portrait of a woman seizing control and leaving the clueless men she’s surrounded by behind her (One of whom, in Robert Forster, incredibly, was the lone performance from the film that garnered a nomination) still leaves an impression.
2. Denzel Washington, Malcolm X — Best Actor over Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992)
Really dragging here, but for your consideration, a list, within a list:
The Definitive Ranking of Denzel Washington’s Top Ten All Time Worst Oscar Snubs:
10. Antwoine Fisher
8. Devil In A Blue Dress
7. He Got Game
6. Mo Betta Blues
2. The Hurricane
1. Malcolm X
I mean, what else is there to say? He’s our greatest living actor. Among the greatest actors who ever lived. He can do character shit and dissolve into a role, he can grab his nuts and just be Denzel in a superstar performance, he can do fucking Shakespeare. Not even going to waste time on Pacino’s lifetime achievement Oscar for doing a ridiculous, laughable bit. Denzel is the best. But, for fun, I’ll leave you with this. In 2020, Regina King made One Night in Miami, a pretty good play adaptation in which Kingsley Ben-Adir, a fine young charismatic actor, played Malcolm X. And he was good, you couldn’t ask anymore from him, but what I realized watching it is we have to retire Malcolm X as a character in movies. Denzel was so good, he attached an implicit meta lens to the character. He’s done what I’ve only seen done one other time in history, that Eddie Murphy accomplished with his Cosby impression in Raw: People are no longer able to do the impression of the person. You’ve found a quality, a tone, so distinct and formative, they can only do impressions of your impression. That’s special.
1. Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got To Do With It? — Best Lead Actress over Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993)
At last, we come to the inevitable end anyone with the interest or attention span to read everything that has come before it likely knew we were heading towards all along, with a queen who still has never properly received the flowers she so richly deserves.
I love Holly Hunter. But whatever your mileage is on her, safe to say in comparison to what Angela Bassett is doing here, it goes beyond them not shooting on the same basket. They’re not playing the same fucking SPORT. Even lip synching, Bassett delivers one of the most athletic musical performances ever committed to film, and not just in stage work, not just in her unreal bench-press-a-school-bus-with-all-the-kids-in-it-physicality. Watch her mouth as she’s singing, it’s elastic, impossible. The G force blows everyone else off the screen, even the great Laurence Fishburne, probably doing the best work of his career. It’s an all-time performance, and she lost to Holly Hunter who was mute and pale in a bonnet for two hours. Who won, I guess for subverting her legacy of Hepburnish chattiness in a truly strange and barely coherent film? Respectfully: fuck outta here. An all time travesty.
There’s a scene in The Piano where Hunter suffers silently, from afar as the tide laps at the legs of her prized piano in the surf. And you can say whatever you want about subtle interiority, but when you compare that to a ripped Angela Bassett getting dragged by her hair down a hotel hallway by coked out Laurence Fishburne, alive and screaming at the top of her lungs and burning the filmstock throughout her breakout performance, it’s a perfect metaphor for a century of Black excellence in the film industry taking a backseat to white mediocrity.
Abe Beame: Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame