Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg once said, “I’m fighting the label of ‘Black actress’ simply because it’s very limiting in people’s eyes, especially people who are making movies.” Whether or not they decide to label themselves as such, Black actresses have been struggling to earn their keep for decades in an industry that often seems to simply reject any complex representation of Black women. Looking at the history of Black actresses and the Academy Awards, the roles most often celebrated by the awards are widely known as stereotypical: the matronly Mamie, the lascivious Jezebel, the malicious Sapphire, the ignorant Welfare Queen.
In this gallery, we highlight a history of Black actresses nominated for Academy Awards, spanning from Hattie McDaniel to Viola Davis. Interestingly enough, despite being over seven decades apart, both actresses received acclaim for their portrayals of housemaids to white families. Viola Davis recently reasserted to fellow actress Charlize Theron during an Actor’s roundtable, “I have an absolute understanding and awareness of the image I project, and there’s just not a lot of roles for women who look like me.”
In spite of Hollywood’s lack of diverse images, Black actresses at their best are a personification of the complex mosaic that is the Black female experience. The women featured in this gallery represent only a very small portion of esteemed Black actresses, yet these particular sisters have opened doors for generations to come. They serve as beacons of hope in a hopeless place.