The achievements of Black actors and actresses in cinema have been a monumental climb. The Academy Awards has only offered 21 acting awards to Black actors, which has prompted social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite to give voice to the problem of underrepresentation in Hollywood cinema.
Here are 10 famous Black actors and actresses who broke racial barriers with their dramatic and comedic performances.
Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win the coveted Best Actor prize for his role in Lilies of the Field. Despite Poitier's historic accomplishment, the reality of racial discrimination was still very real when it was reported that some people found it offensive that actress Anne Bancroft, who presented the award to Poitier, kissed him on the cheek to congratulate him. Poitier would later receive an Honorary Award at the Oscars in 2002. He died in 2022, at age 94.
Born into slavery, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American ever to win an Oscar. Portraying an enslaved worker Mammy in David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind, McDaniel was forced to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress in a racially segregated hotel. Selznick, however, was able to pull some strings so that McDaniel could give her acceptance speech at the 12th Academy Awards. "I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future," she said. "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry."
Almost 40 years would pass until Denzel Washington became the second African American actor to win an Oscar. In 1990, he would win the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as a defiant Civil War soldier in Glory. Washington would make history again in 2002, with his Best Actor win for Training Day, making him the only African American thus far to have won multiple Oscars. Receiving his second award was especially poignant in that his mentor Poitier also received an Oscar that night. "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney [Poitier], they finally give it to me, what'd they do? They give it to him the same night," Washington stated. "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you."
It was hard to overlook Whoopi Goldberg's hilarious and touching performance as psychic Oda Mae Brown in the romantic fantasy thriller Ghost — and the Academy agreed. Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1991 and as part of her acceptance speech, confessed that she had dreamed of winning an Oscar since she was a little kid. But what she didn't confess (until decades later) was that she was high when she won. (To calm her nerves before the event, she had smoked a joint... and regretted the decision.) "Never smoke pot before there's the possibility of having to talk to a hundred million people," she said in a video from the 1990s, which was discovered and released by TMZ in 2011. "And, honey, when [Denzel Washington] said my name I popped up. I thought, 'Oh, f--k! Oh, f--k!'" she recalled. "'Okay, up the stairs. One, two, three, four, five. Okay, around the podium. There's millions of people! Pick up the statue!'"
Cuba Gooding Jr.
"Show me the Oscar!" That's basically what Cuba Gooding Jr. was feeling after he found out he won Best Supporting Actor in 1997 for his portrayal as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell in the sports rom-com Jerry Maguire. Gooding was so overwhelmed by his win, he jumped around on the stage and screamed out "I love you!" several times, making everyone feel like Tidwell was back and was on the verge of doing his famous "Show me the money!" dance.
The 74th Academy Awards was a banner year for Black actors. Not only did Washington and Poitier take home Oscars, but Halle Berry also took home a golden statue for her dramatic role in Monster's Ball, making her the only African American woman to date to have won in the Best Actress category. Feeling the gravity of her 2002 win, Berry's speech was nothing short of dramatic as she tearfully addressed the world: "This moment is so much bigger than me," she said. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored."
By the time Morgan Freeman won his first Oscar in 2005, he was a veteran in the industry and had four nominations under his belt. Freeman won for Best Supporting Actor for his part as Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris in Clint Eastwood's boxing drama Million Dollar Baby. The mild-mannered box office star thanked the director for being able to work with him again (they worked together in 1992's Unforgiven), and said that being part of the film was a "labor of love."
Octavia Spencer was full of tears, gratitude and jitters after winning her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2011 for the period drama The Help. Referring to her statue as "the hottest guy in the room," she went on to thank a slew of people, including Steven Spielberg, whom she said had changed her life. (Spielberg's studio, Dreamworks, was behind the development of the film, and the two would go on to work on the Fox television series Red Band Society a few years later.) But the more interesting bit of trivia about her Oscar win is Spencer's longtime friendship with The Help's director Tate Taylor and book author Kathryn Stockett, who based Spencer's sharp-tongued character Minny on the real-life actress herself. Even though the three knew each other years before the making of the book and film, Spencer — who had only been playing minor roles in film and TV — still had to audition to play the role. She got it, and since then, she's been on Hollywood's A-list and has received two more Academy Award nominations.
When Mahershala Ali won his Oscar in 2017 for his supporting role as Juan — the drug dealer with a heart — in the coming-of-age drama Moonlight, he took the humble route. "It's not about you. It's about these characters," he said in his acceptance speech. "You are a servant. You're in service to these stories and these characters and I'm so blessed to have had an opportunity." With his win, Ali made history not only as a Black actor but also as a Muslim, becoming the first actor in his faith to win an Oscar. As much as this achievement wasn't lost on him, Ali looked at the moment from an artistic perspective. "Regardless of one’s theology, as an artist, my job is the same — to connect with these characters as deeply as possible," he told the press backstage.
By the time Viola Davis won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2017 for her emotionally stirring performance in the film adaptation of August Wilson's Fences, the actress had already been a veteran in the awards circuit, earning a slew of NAACP and SAG awards, one Emmy and two Tonys among her many accolades. With so much winning, Davis—who is the first Black actress to have received three Oscar nominations—has built a reputation on giving powerhouse acceptance speeches, and at the 89th Academy Awards, she made no exception. "There's one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered, and that's the graveyard," she began. "People ask me all the time, 'What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?' And I say, 'Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost.' I became an artist, and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life."