The African-American Breakthrough at the Academy Awards

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African-American actors had a boomlet of Academy Award acting nominations. Many predicted at the time that the civil rights era had finally come to Hollywood, and that Black nominees and winners would become a fixture at the Oscar ceremony.

It was a false dawn. Nomination droughts set in for Best Actor (1972 to 1986), Best Actress (1974 to 1985), Best Supporting Actor (1969 to 1981) and Best Supporting Actress (1967 to 1983).

In 2001, Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress and Denzel Washington won for Best Actor. Again, many predicted that Hollywood had changed forever. Enough time has gone by to evaluate whether 2001 was a turning point or a blip on the radar.

The second time was the charm. In the 83 year history of the Oscars, African-Americans have been nominated for acting awards a total of 60 times. A remarkable 40% of those nominations occurred from 2001 onward. The change is even more impressive if the analysis is restricted to winners: 8 Oscars from 2001 onward, versus only 6 over the preceding 72 years.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “The African-American Breakthrough at the Academy Awards”

  1. Maybe it is just a function of black actors getting more “quality” roles.

    I can’t remember the 1960s equivalents of Denzel, Freeman, Samuel L., Fishburne, Murphy, Whittaker or Will Smith. Maybe there were actors around then(Poitier, certainly, but I can’t remember many more – Richard Roundtree, Gregory Hines?), but the big studios did not believe the public were ready for them.

    I felt a shift when Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for “Glory” in 1989, but “Training Day” was definitely a breakthrough because Denzel won the award playing a bad guy. For a black guy as hate-figure to win was definitely ground-breaking.

    1. The great Poitier was before the boomlet, really a man standing almost alone in 1950s and early 1960s. The late 1960s and early 1970s performers were people like Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson and Rupert Crosse.

  2. One observation, particularly in the best-actor category: note the wave of biopics depicting real-life black people: Mandela, Rusesabagina, Ray Charles, Idi Amin. (The list of white Best Actor nominees leans much more towards fiction.) I hypothesize that there’s an ongoing implicit bias at work: to wit, that Hollywood’s *screenwriters* are mostly white, and that when writing fiction they default to white characters. (Or characters that casting agents see as white.) And that they still only overcome this bias when the biopic/true-story context triggers them to.

  3. I don’t know that it will win any Oscars, but if you like rom-coms, Think Like a Man was quite fun.

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