Denzel Washington, Black Actors, and the Academy Awards
This article was originally published February 18, 2021.
In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, 933 performers have been nominated at least once for an acting award—but only 55 Black actors have been so honored. For many of those who did manage to achieve that elusive Academy recognition, they did so while overcoming systemic obstacles inherent in the film industry that denied them the opportunities that their talents merited.
Of course, an Oscar nomination isn’t the only measure of a film career, and these are far from the only Black actors who have delivered indelible performances that deserved Oscar attention. Fantastic performers like Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Michael B. Jordan, Anthony Mackie, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Gabrielle Union, Geoffrey Wright, and too many others to name have never received a competitive acting nomination.
But although the industry and the Academy may still have a long way to go to ensure that Black performers are no longer underutilized and underrewarded, the accomplishments of these 55 performers are still worth recognizing. So this Black History Month, we’re celebrating every one of these outstanding nominees—starting with our February 2021 Rough Cut Spotlight subject and Oscar favorite Denzel Washington.
The categories below are necessarily arbitrary, and plenty of these actors could fit into more than one group. But taken together, they provide a framework for celebrating these performers and examining the types of career paths that have led Black actors to Academy recognition in the past. And although it's too soon to be certain, this year's nominations are likely to add a few new names to this list, helping to fill in this incomplete portrait with new, dynamic performances.
**UPDATE (3/17/21): The nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards had a record-breaking 6 Black acting nominees, 4 of whom were new. The categories below have been updated to reflect those new nominations.
Cry Freedom, 1987
Malcolm X, 1992
The Hurricane, 1999
Training Day, 2001*
Roman J. Israel, Esq., 2017
With 8 nominations and 2 wins over 30 years, Denzel Washington isn’t just the most Oscar-nominated Black actor in history. His longevity as a major box office draw and universal respect among his peers has made him one of the most nominated actors of all time—period. Denzel’s nominations run the gamut of Oscar archetypes: soldiers and athletes, historical figures and domestic patriarchs, quirky oddballs and corrupt antiheroes. He has more nominations than Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ingrid Bergman, and Dustin Hoffman. If the Academy ever constructed a Mount Rushmore of screen acting, Denzel Washington would definitely be there.
Mahershala Ali - Moonlight, 2016*; Green Book, 2018*
Viola Davis - Doubt, 2008; The Help, 2011; Fences, 2016*, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 2020 (**NEW**)
Morgan Freeman - Street Smart, 1987; Driving Miss Daisy, 1989
Shawshank Redemption, 1994; Million Dollar Baby, 2004*; Invictus, 2009
Octavia Spencer - The Help, 2011*; Hidden Figures, 2016;
The Shape of Water, 2017
Besides Denzel Washington, only three Black performers have ever received more than two competitive acting nominations, and all three have taken home the gold: Viola Davis, Morgan Freeman, and Octavia Spencer. Davis and Freeman’s Oscar histories are closely linked with Washington’s. Washington directed Davis to a win on her third nomination for Fences; they also starred together in the film and the 2010 stage production. And Washington won his first Oscar for 1989’s Glory, which also starred Freeman, who got his first lead nomination that same year for Driving Miss Daisy.
Of all the actors working today, Mahershala Ali seems likeliest to be the next to join that three-timers club, but he’s already in rarer company: he’s the only Black actor other than Denzel to have won more than one acting Oscar (out of 43 actors overall).
**UPDATE: with her fourth nomination for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—another August Wilson adaptation produced by Denzel Washington—Viola Davis is now the most-nominated Black woman in Academy history, breaking her tie with three-time nominees Octavia Spencer and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
Monster’s Ball, 2001*
The Reivers, 1969
Carmen Jones, 1954
Louis Gossett, Jr.
An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982*
Gone with the Wind, 1939*
The Defiant Ones, 1958
Lilies of the Field, 1963*
These six actors were the first to achieve an Oscar nomination or win in each of the four acting categories, each one leaving the door cracked a little wider for those who came after them.
Hattie McDaniel, who was infamously relegated to a segregated table at the 11th Academy Awards, was the first Black nominee and winner in any acting category when she was named 1939’s Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind. But it would be another 15 years before Dorothy Dandridge became the first Black nominee in a lead category in 1954, and nearly another half century until Halle Berry became the first (and so far, only) woman of color to win Best Actress in 2001.
On the men’s side, the legendary Sidney Poitier broke barrier after barrier by becoming the first Black man to become an A-List Hollywood star, the first Black Best Actor nominee in 1958, and the first Black winner of a lead acting Oscar in 1963. Poitier was also the first Black performer to be nominated for multiple acting Oscars, a feat only repeated by nine other Black actors since. In the supporting actor category, the first Black nominee was Rupert Crosse in 1969, and Louis Gossett, Jr. became the first Black winner in that category in 1982.
Several of these firsts coincided at the 74th Academy Awards. On the same night when Halle Berry made history by winning Best Actress, Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for career achievement. When Denzel Washington won his own Lead Actor trophy that same night—the first since Poitier nearly four decades earlier—he affectionately quipped, “Forty years I've been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me, what'd they do? They give it to him the same night.”
Ruby Dee - American Gangster, 2007
Cynthia Erivo - Harriet, 2019
James Earl Jones - The Great White Hope, 1970
Leslie Odom, Jr. - One Night in Miami, 2020 (**NEW**)
Beah Richards - Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967
Cicely Tyson - Sounder, 1972
Some actors are just as well known for their work on stage as on screen, and there’s a long history of performers earning their chops by treading the boards before crossing over to cinema. For some, like James Earl Jones, that transfer is direct; before he became Darth Vader or Mufasa, he won a Tony Award for the Broadway production of The Great White Hope and earned an Oscar nomination for starring in the film adaptation a few years later.
For others, like Ruby Dee, the road was much longer. After starring in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun opposite Sidney Poitier in 1959 (as well as the 1961 film), Dee waited almost 50 years to receive her first and only Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster—the culmination of a legendary career.
Beah Richards also appeared in the original production of Raisin, where she understudied the role of Sidney Poitier’s mother; she would be Oscar-nominated for playing Poitier’s mother only eight years later in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. More recently, Cynthia Erivo’s dynamic Tony-winning performance in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple launched her to stardom in films like Widows and her Oscar-nominated role in Harriet.
And finally, in her nearly 60-year career, the late Cicely Tyson also worked across stage and screen. She was Oscar nominated in 1972 for Sounder and won a Tony Award in 2013 for a revival of The Trip to Bountiful, playing the same role that won Geraldine Page an Oscar in 1985.
**UPDATE: Leslie Odom Jr., the Tony Award-winning star of Hamilton, received his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in Regina King's One Night in Miami.
Mary J. Blige
The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2020 (**NEW**)
Round Midnight, 1986
Lady Sings the Blues, 1972
Over the course of their history, the Academy has always had an affinity for musical performers who transfer their talents from the recording studio or the concert hall to the silver screen. Often, these actors demonstrate their musical talents in the films that lead to Oscar attention, adding an extra degree of depth and difficulty to their performances.
They all got there in slightly different ways. Jazz singer Ethel Waters was nominated for playing against type in a dramatic role, and Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah starred in stage musical adaptations with showstopping numbers that highlighted their vocal talents. Diana Ross redirected her own star power to portray another icon—the legendary Billie Holiday—a strategy employed by several actors on this list without the benefit of Ms. Ross’s musical background.
**UPDATE: Nearly 50 years later, Andra Day followed in her footsteps and also earned a nomination for playing the iconic Ms. Holiday in a debut performance. Amazingly, their nominations also marked the only two instances in history when two Black women were nominated for Best Actress in the same year.
In some cases, these performers’ skills brought them recognition beyond just acting: Sax player Dexter Gordon won a Grammy for his jazz performance in Round Midnight, and Mary J. Blige became one of only three people to receive acting and songwriting nominations for the same film with Mudbound (a feat repeated by the aforementioned Cynthia Erivo, who easily could have fit in this category as well).
**UPDATE: In 2020, Leslie Odom Jr. became the 4th person to achieve a double nomination for acting and songwriting for the same film, joining Blige, Erivo, and Lady Gaga. This is a recent trend—before Blige did it in 2016, it had never happened before, but it's happened every year since!
Angela Bassett - What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993
Laurence Fishburne - What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993
Cuba Gooding Jr. - Jerry Maguire, 1996*
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008
Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow, 2005
Samuel L. Jackson - Pulp Fiction, 1994
Daniel Kaluuya - Get Out, 2017, Judas and the Black Messiah, 2020 (**NEW**)
Will Smith - Ali, 2001; The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006
The Oscars’ bread and butter has always been movie stars, and these eight names are no exception. For some of them, the Oscar nomination was the breakthrough moment that catapulted them to fame; for others, it was a confirmation of stardom already achieved.
Daniel Kaluuya’s journey is still just beginning, but after receiving a rare acting nomination for a horror film with Get Out at age 28, he seems poised to shoot up these lists in years to come. **UPDATE: he did! And of course, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Oscar-winning role in Jerry Maguire and effusive, ecstatic victory speech helped make him a household name.
By virtue of his roles in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, Samuel L. Jackson may be the most recognizable movie star on the planet, but it’s his longstanding partnership with Quentin Tarantino that brought him his only career Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction. Likewise, Will Smith achieved superstardom in action comedies and sci-fi blockbusters, but earned two Oscar nominations for more dramatic fare.
After starring together in Boyz n the Hood (which made its own Oscar history when John Singleton became the youngest ever and first Black directing nominee), Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne reunited for What’s Love Got to Do With It, which earned them his-and-hers lead acting nominations. Oscar nominations similarly vaulted Hustle and Flow co-stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson to greater fame and success; they would reunite more than a decade later on TV’s Empire.
Secrets and Lies, 1996
If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018*
Cross Creek, 1983
Some of our greatest actors have found more space for their talents to flourish on television, which often affords actors of color more opportunities to take on complex roles. These are versatile performers whose ease moving among mediums has granted them longevity and familiarity as they reach directly into people’s homes through television.
Although she broke through with an Oscar-nominated performance in Secrets and Lies, audiences are likely most familiar with Marianne Jean-Baptiste for her 160-episode run on Without a Trace. After his nomination for Sounder, Paul Winfield embarked on a long television career, including playing the title role in the 1978 miniseries King and a long arc on the sitcom 227, which marked the television debut of another King: recent Oscar-winner Regina King. She has become an awards powerhouse in the last decade—especially on TV, where she has won four Primetime Emmys, most recently for HBO’s Watchmen. Alfre Woodard is another four-time Emmy winner who has similarly moved between TV and film with ease over the course of her career, and stage and screen star Diahann Carroll is most famous for her roles on Dynasty and her groundbreaking series Julia.
Captain Phillips, 2013
The Crying Game, 1992
Twelve Years a Slave, 2013*
Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012
The Color Purple, 1985
The Academy loves to anoint a new discovery based on a stunning debut performance. These seven actors (along with a couple others on this list) were each nominated for their first-ever film performance. Their careers took different trajectories after that first nomination: Jaye Davidson retired from acting just a few years after The Crying Game, while Oprah Winfrey’s debut in The Color Purple ultimately led to a business empire and new role as an influential media icon. Barkhad Abdi, Howard Rollins, Gabourey Sidibe, and Quvenzhané Wallis parlayed breakthrough nominations into careers of varying success in film and TV, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win for Twelve Years a Slave catapulted her to global stardom. But regardless of what came next, each of these six actors began their careers by blazing on to the screen and captivating audiences from the moment they arrived.
Ray, 2004*; Collateral, 2004
The Color Purple, 1985; Ghost, 1990*
Another age-old Oscar tradition is rewarding comedians for “going serious” and leaving their comfort zones for more dramatic pastures. Setting aside the inherent absurdity of considering dramas more worthy of recognition than comedy, it can often be a surefire way of garnering Oscar attention—especially when an actor can work elements of their comedic persona into a dramatic role.
Four Black performers who got their start in stand-up comedy have made it to the Oscars for their acting chops. Sometimes, the roles are purely dramatic, like Whoopi Goldberg’s heartwrenching debut in The Color Purple, Jamie Foxx’s adrenaline-laden role in Collateral, or Mo’Nique’s monster mom in Precious. In Ray and Dreamgirls, respectively, Foxx and Eddie Murphy played musicians grappling with infidelity and drug addiction—but still showed glimpses of their comedic charm and genuine star power, especially in dynamic musical sequences. And in Ghost, Goldberg managed the rare feat of winning an Oscar for a purely comedic performance, becoming the first Black actress to secure a second nomination in the process.
Margaret Avery - The Color Purple, 1985
Adolph Caesar - A Soldier’s Story, 1984
Michael Clarke Duncan - The Green Mile, 1999
Chiwetel Ejiofor - Twelve Years a Slave, 2013
In America, 2003; Blood Diamond, 2006
Imitation of Life, 1959
Ruth Negga - Loving, 2016
Lakeith Stanfield - Judas and the Black Messiah, 2020 (**NEW**)
Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland, 2006*
One of the most exciting things about the Oscars is seeing a journeyman actor finally get their breakthrough moment after years of consistently strong work in less prominent roles. Many of these are familiar faces from major films—Naomie Harris appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean and James Bond franchises before her nomination for Moonlight, and Djimon Hounsou built on significant small parts in Academy-friendly films like Amistad and Gladiator that led to his nominations in In America and Blood Diamond. Even after earning awards attention for lead performances in Twelve Years a Slave and The Last King of Scotland, respectively, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Forest Whitaker have continued to play scene-stealing character parts and supporting roles, adding strength and depth to every ensemble they appear in. These character actors may not have the name recognition of some of their more famous counterparts, but when the opportunities present themselves, they grab the spotlight and demand attention.
**UPDATE: After a decade of scene-stealing supporting roles in films ranging from Get Out to Knives Out, Lakeith Stanfield garnered an Oscar nomination alongside co-star Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Of course, there's more to filmmaking than just actors. Only six Black filmmakers (all men, it should be noted) have ever received a Best Director nomination—John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee—and none of them have taken home the statuette. Representation in other categories is similarly lacking. Even as the Academy improves when it comes to recognition of actors from all backgrounds, inclusion of artisans of color in all aspects of filmmaking—especially the less visible ones—remains important and worth scrutiny.