The History Of The Oscars Recognizing Black Actresses: Including Angela Bassett’s Historic 2023 Nomination

history of black women at Oscars, Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, Halle Berry in Monster Ball, Angela Bassett in Wakanda Forever
(Image credit: MGM/Lionsgate/Marvel)

It’s no secret that Hollywood and the awards celebrating it have historically lacked diversity, especially when it comes to recognizing Black women. The ongoing trend of predominantly white actresses being nominated for Oscars continues, with Angela Bassett being the only Black woman to be recognized for an acting performance this year for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, with her historic nomination. Before we look forward to the 2023 Academy Awards and beyond, let’s look back at the history that has been at the Oscars in terms of recognizing Black actresses. 

When the 2023 Oscar nominations were revealed, movie fans immediately pointed out the 2023 Academy Awards’ various snubs, including two especially incredible performances by Black women that should have had a shot at the Best Actress category, Viola Davis in The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler in Till. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about the past 95 years. 

Hattie McDaniel winning her Oscar in 1940 for Gone with the Wind

(Image credit: Oscars/YouTube)

Hattie McDaniel Is The First Black Actress To Be Nominated For (And Win) An Oscar

Over the nearly 100-year history of the Academy Awards, only ten golden trophies have been given out to Black women for acting performances. The first time the Oscars nominated a Black actress was in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, a movie that nearly swept every category at the 12th Academy Awards. Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role as a house servant named Mammy in the romance epic. The second Black actress to be nominated for an Oscar was Ethel Waters for 1949's Pinky, and the first Black actress nominated for Best Actress happened for Dorothy Dandridge, with her 1954 titular role in Carmen Jones. Here's every winner thus far:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Year WonActressFilmAward
1939Hattie McDanielGone With The WindBest Actress in a Supporting Role
1991Whoopi GoldbergGhostBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2002Halle BerryMonster's BallBest Actress in a Leading Role
2007Jennifer HudsonDreamgirlsBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2010Mo'NiquePreciousBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2012Octavia SpencerThe HelpBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2014Lupita Nyong'o12 Years A SlaveBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2017Viola DavisFencesBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2019Regina KingIf Beale Street Could TalkBest Actress in a Supporting Role
2022Ariana DeBoseWest Side StoryBest Actress in a Supporting Role

We'll break down some of these wins further as we go through more of the history of the Academy Awards. 

Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

It’s Been Rare For More Than One Black Woman To Be Nominated In A Single Year

When it comes to nominations, it’s been very uncommon for the Academy to nominate more than one performance by a Black actress in a single year. It occurred for the first time during the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, when Diana Ross’ performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues and Cicely Tyson’s role in Sounder were both nominated in the Best Actress category. Liza Minnelli won over them that year for Cabaret

Overall, there have been eight times in Oscars history where more than one Black actress has been nominated in a single year: 1973, 1986, 2009, 2012, 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2022. The good news is that in the past few years it’s been an increasingly more common occurrence. The most Black actresses nominated in one year happened at the 2017 award show, when Ruth Negga was up for Best Actress and Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and Octavia Spencer were all up for Supporting, and Davis won for her performance in Fences.  

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

1985’s The Color Purple Was Significant For Black Actress Oscar Nominations

Speaking of multiple Black actresses getting recognition for their work in a single year, 1986 was a massive year for that at the Academy Awards. At the 58th ceremony, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple led nominations alongside Out Of Africa, both earning 11 each. Among the movie’s nods were three performance nominations for Black women, with Whoopi Goldberg getting on the list for Best Actress, and Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey being nominated for Supporting. While none of them actually won, it was the first time multiple African-American actresses from the same film had been in the running. 

Halle Berry in Monster's Ball

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Halle Berry Is The Only Black Best Actress Winner Ever

At the 2002 Oscars, Halle Berry took the stage to accept her award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, becoming the first Black actress to win the honor, saying her win was door being "opened." Over 20 years after that milestone moment, Berry’s performance in Monster’s Ball remains the only time a Black actress has taken home the award. The Academy has a clear tendency to nominate Black women in supporting roles and shut them out when it comes to leading roles. 

Viola Davis in Doubt

(Image credit: Miramax Films)

Viola Davis Is The Most Nominated Black Actress In Academy Awards History

Over the years, the Academy has nominated numerous actors more than once, with Meryl Streep earning a record 21 Oscar nominations and three wins. A ton of other actresses have been nominated again and again, including Katharine Hepburn’s 12, Bette Davis’ 10, Cate Blanchett, Geraldine Page, Judi Dench and Glenn Close each having eight, and so forth. When it comes to Black actresses that have been nominated for multiple awards, just four actresses have multiple nods.

Viola Davis has been nominated the most, with four nominations and one win, followed by Octavia Spencer’s three nominations and one win, and lastly, Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg’s two nominations each. Goldberg won for Ghost in 1991 and Bassett could win her first this year for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Octavia Spencer in The Help

(Image credit: Walt Disney Studios)

Octavia Spencer Is The Only Black Actress To Be Nominated Two Years In A Row

Along with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer has been an actress to break through the Academy’s patterns with her three nominations over the years. Spencer was first nominated for her supporting role in The Help in 2012, before having back-to-back years where she was nominated again in the same category for Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water in 2017 and 2018. With those nominations in mind, she’s not only the first to be nominated two years in a row, she’s also the first to be nominated twice after already winning. 

Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Angela Bassett’s Wakanda Forever Nomination Is Historic For Marvel

That brings us to this year at the Oscars. Angela Bassett was the only Black actress to be nominated for an acting award this year for her part as Queen Ramonda in the Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever. The supporting role nomination is a huge deal because it could give Bassett her first Oscar. Additionally, it opens the door for Marvel Studios because it is the first time an actor in one of the franchise’s movies has been nominated for their performances. 

Black women have historically been underrepresented for acting awards on Hollywood’s biggest night. To see how this year’s Academy Awards shake out, you can tune in to the 95th Academy Awards on ABC on March 12. And, check out the 2023 TV schedule to keep track of upcoming award shows. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.