During her Academy Award acceptance speech for her role as the mournful Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry proclaimed her win as a moment “for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
But was it opened? Berry won in 2002 and remains the only black winner of Best Actress. And since that win, Berry’s career has floundered as attempts in both dramatic (Cloud Atlas) and commercial fair (Catwoman) have largely flopped. Berry’s win was an exception to the rule: If it’s all white, it’s all right. But her post-win career falls in line with many female Oscar winners regardless of race (Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron) and black female Oscar winners in particular.
Academy Award nominations and wins for black actresses fall within a select number of categories: the Historical Figure, the Mad or Tragic Black Woman, the Vocal Mammy. We’ve yet to see a nomination like Meryl Streep’s razor-sharp Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wear’s Prada, Melissa McCarthy’s outlandish and vulgar Megan in Bridesmaids, or Jennifer Lawrence’s depressed romantic foil in Silver Linings Playbook.
No, black actresses that make it to the elite and very public ranks of Academy Award nominations are often and swiftly limited to roles that perpetuate rather than question or challenge stereotypes of what it means to be black and specifically, what it means to be a black woman.
Black women are angry and volatile the world says, and so we honor Mo’Nique’s role in Precious as the viciously abusive and antagonistic mother. Black women are sassy mother figures, and so we reward Octavia Spencer for playing a maid in the cloying, revisionist “heart-warmer” The Help.
As long as minority actors in general, and black actresses especially, are marginalized in their representation on film screens, an Academy Award win (and nomination) will remain as a marker of singularity rather than promise. Whereas a young, relatively unknown actress like Jennifer Lawrence can parlay an Academy Award nomination at age 19 to both critical and commercial success in films such as X-Men: First Class, the Hunger Games trilogy, and Silver Linings Playbook (which garnered the actress her first Oscar win), Gabourey Sidibe, after a similar first nomination, has to make do with small, unremarkable television roles.
On Sunday, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o is poised to win an Academy Award for her very first nomination in her very first screen role as Patsey, a tragically abused and raped young slave woman in Steve McQueen’s brilliant and necessary 12 Years a Slave. The win would be entirely warranted and a welcome gift to a young, aspirational woman just beginning her film career.
But the role falls in line with the tropes of black actress Oscar nominations. Would Nyong’o be nominated (let alone cast) in a role like Lawrence’s in American Hustle? Lawrence is Nyong’o’s direct competition for the win and the two actresses are competing in opposing roles. For her brief yet bounce role, Lawrence exudes humor and clarity in a film often lacking in both. She is allowed to be, if not happy, then certainly less tragic than the slaves and maids that have so frequently marked recent nominations.
If black actresses are only rewarded for these types of roles, how can we ever expect them to receive the same post-Oscar treatment as their white peers? If they are only seen as tragic, stereotypical tropes, how can they ever garner a more diverse array of critically and commercially viable roles to sustain their careers? In truth, we can’t, and the plateaued or drowning careers of winners such as Halle Berry and Jennifer Hudson (who won in 2006 for Dreamgirls) speaks to this reality.
Unlike Hollywood, Nyong’o has been warmly embraced by the media and fashion industries. In a few short months, she has graced the covers of W, New York, and Dazed and Confused, and she’s garnered a campaign with Miu Miu. Nyong’o was a welcome guest at New York Fashion Week and sat front row next to Vogue editrix Anna Wintour.
And yet, her only upcoming role is a bit part in Liam Neeson’s action thriller Non-Stop. Since her quick rise, recent trailers have included more seconds of Nyong’o’s enviable face, capitalizing on her stature and popularity, especially among women.
Will Nyong’o, who has garnered far more mainstream media attention than previous nominees and winners (barring Berry, who before Scandal’s Kerry Washington, reigned supreme as the sole black female A-lister) be the exception to the rule? Unlike many other past nominees, Nyong’o is an academically trained actor. Her background is built with an education that aims to create well-rounded and fiercely talented actors. But whether that is enough remains to be seen.
Win or not, the next year remains a test as to whether Nyong’o can find the sort of Oscar bump that has fueled the careers of her peers.
Britt Julious is an essayist and a Senior Editor of This Recording. Her work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, and Pitchfork.
Photos by Prayitno/Flickr and brava_67/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed