|Photo by the AP
In 1960 Juanita Moore would become only the third African American to earn an Academy Award nomination. That would be the highlight of her career.
Juanita Moore was born in Mississippi in 1914 and passed away on January 1st of this year. She worked her way up from nightclub dancer, to background actress, to earning an Academy Award nomination for her role in the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.”
Following the nomination, work was not necessarily any easier to come by. Moore remarked that she actually got more jobs before the Oscar nomination because now casting directors couldn’t see her taking on any more maid/servant roles. It was an uncomfortable plight similar to what Dorothy Dandridge experienced.
In the years after her Oscar nod, Juanita Moore would continue to work in television and on Broadway. She was 99-years-old.
I rooted for both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis during last Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m not one who usually cares for award shows, but this year’s Oscars had the weight of history on its broad shoulders.
See, not only were two black women nominated for Oscars, they were favored to win. Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis had received critical acclaim for their portrayals as Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark in Dreamworks’ “The Help.” The idea of black women playing maids and being awarded for it, is in itself nothing new. You can go as far back as 1940 with the case of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal as (you guessed it) a maid. 72 years later, it seems Hollywood has not come as far as one would expect in acknowledging black women (or women of color for that matter) for roles beyond that of domestics.
An even more troubling development is that an Oscar win hasn’t exactly been a golden ticket to unlocking better roles or more consistent work within Hollywood. This has especially been true for black actors and actresses. Octavia Spencer is just the latest actress of color whom people are wondering what her next step will be. If the past is any precedent, Spencer’s future might be murky at best.
Since winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for her role in “Precious,” Monique has had a canceled late night TV show on BET and nary a film role to speak of. Halle Berry, who won the Best Actress Award for her role in “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, hasn’t sniffed another Oscar since. Her most memorable film since “Monster’s Ball” might be her work as Storm in the X-Men series. The lack of consistent work isn’t just limited to the ladies however. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career basically fell off the edge of the earth after winning for Best Supporting Actor in “Jerry McGuire.” He too has not come close to winning another Oscar.
It hasn’t all been negative though. Since winning an Oscar for Best Actor in 2002 for “Training Day,” Denzel Washington has only garnered more acclaim and recognition for his work. Finding work has not been trouble for Mr. Washington. The problem is Denzel is the exception and not the rule when it comes to black actors in Hollywood. Maybe things will be different this time for Octavia Spencer. Or maybe, after 72 years, we still have to wait yet a little bit longer to the day when an Oscar win by a person of color is no longer a noteworthy thing.
46 years ago this month, the world said goodbye to Dorothy Dandridge.
Dorothy Dandridge is a name that is too often forgotten when it comes to women in the early days of Hollywood. Everyone has heard of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and the like. Well, Dandridge was every bit the onscreen presence these women were, but as a black actress in the 40s and 50s it was hard to get noticed and even harder to find consistent work. Hell, truth be told it’s still hard for women of color to find steady work in Hollywood and get recognized (see Taraji P. Henson).
What makes Dandridge so compelling is the fact that she wasn’t just an actress, but a singer as well. She was what you would call an all around entertainer. Perhaps best known for her work as Carmen in the movie ‘Carmen Jones,’ Dandridge was electrifying on screen and would even garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1954. She didn’t win, but maybe more importantly, she proved she belonged.
Sadly, ‘Carmen Jones’ proved to be the high point of Dorothy’s career as she would spend the next decade with diminishing roles and increasingly high personal debt. The fact that she was even able to get prominent roles in Hollywood films could be seen as an accomplishment in itself considering the rampant racial discrimination of her era. Dandridge’s career might best be described in the last line of her biography on her IMDB page: “Had she been born 20 years later, Dorothy Dandridge would no doubt be one of the most well-known actresses in film history.”