It was a big night for Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002

Why The Best Actress Category is Still #OscarsSoWhite

As awards season prepares for the grand finale this coming Sunday —all eyes will be on the red carpet and the night’s big winners. There’s no word yet on whether or not there will be an extension of the homage the stars paid to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement — but at the very least there will be plenty of references to the heated climate in Hollywood via Jimmy Kimmel — who returns as master-of-ceremony.

#Oscars2018 isn’t that much different in content from its predecessors except that this time around — women are more visible in notable categories. Actress Greta Gerwig managed to snag major recognition for her first outing as a director with her coming-of-age best picture nominee — Lady Bird. Gerwig is also competing for both the best director and best original screenplay.

Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman ever to be nominated in the best cinematography category for her gorgeously decadent work in Netflix’s Mudbound. The period drama that highlights the aftermath of World War II in the racially divided Deep South also garnered director Dee Rees (Pariah) a nomination for best adapted screenplay.

Singer and actress Mary J. Blige made out quite well as as a two-time Oscar nominee — one for best supporting actress for her stellar performance in Mudbound — and the other for best original song — Mighty River (Mudbound) — an honor the nine-time Grammy winner shares with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson.

The progress of women creatives in an industry that’s notorious for protecting its outdated regime is quite encouraging — even though there’s undoubtedly a lot more work to do to ensure a healthy level of flexibility and consistency.

But when it comes to the esteemed category of best actress — nothing at all has changed since actress Halle Berry’s epic win in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball — the critically-acclaimed darling — produced by Empire’s Lee Daniels.

No Black actress has duplicated that feat.

When it comes to the best supporting category — Black actresses have had an easier time competing for gold — which may have a lot to do with the fact that these roles are sometimes less challenging to secure since it usually involves propping up the leading talents. This however doesn’t downplay the depth of the performances delivered.

Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Precious), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), and Viola Davis (Fences) all share the commonality of winning best supporting actress.

But unlike the best actor category that has seen four Black actors — Sidney Poitier (Lillies of the Field), Denzel Washington (Training Day), Jamie Fox (Ray), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) — walk away with Oscars — the best actress slot seems destined to keep #OscarsSoWhite fully activated — indefinitely.

Truth be told — it’s actually pretty shitty that it’s been over a decade since a Black actor took home the golden guy in one of the most competitive and highly-sought after awards in the business. But it’s even worse that it’s been over 15 years since Berry was lauded for her historic win.

Berry’s emotionally-charged acceptance speech was all the more affecting due to the fact that she shared her joy with another nominee of color — Denzel Washington — who picked up his first and only best actor Oscar on the same night.

Back in 2002 — it seemed as if Berry and Washington’s good fortune would be the foundation for many more victories for Black talents — particularly Black women. But sadly due to limited access to meaty roles — and the exclusion from ambitious projects that promise the high visibility that fuels the enviable career trajectory that their White counterparts seamlessly enjoy — it continues to be an uphill battle for Black actresses trying to forge a steady path in an industry that’s blind to their viability.

There has always been a lackluster reception for films that feature a mostly Black cast even when the themes are similar to the versions that showcase White talents. Take for example Girls Tripa hilariously entertaining comedy that centers on the unexpected results of a spontaneous trip that four lifelong friends take to New Orleans. It was hard not to be reminded of another hit comedy movie about the complexity of friendships amidst life-changing events— Bridesmaids (2011).

Both films exceeded box office expectations and birthed standout performers — courtesy of Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish. But the comparisons end there — since Bridesmaids was deservedly feted during the 2012 awards season with Golden Globe nominations and an Academy Award win for McCarthy in the best supporting actress category. Girls Trip failed to register with the Hollywood elite despite its obvious qualifications — but Haddish did win a best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Now that the most anticipated movie of the year — Black Panther has finally arrived — the all-Black cast of the superhero flick that is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda — is still shattering box office records — both at home and abroad. The notion that a film that deviates from the standard formula that is always primed for success — has blatantly proven its prowess as a formidable heavyweight — is once again reviving the hope that perhaps this cultural phenomenon will elevate the status of Black creatives in more ways than one.

But — as Oscar night fast approaches — it’s hard to ignore the realization that Octavia Spencer is the only Black actress that’s up for an award in the acting category — and per usual it’s for best supporting actress. The best actress list is dominated by White actresses — and it’s the familiar mix of ingenues and veterans.

For anyone who needs a reality check about the crippling lack of diversity in Hollywood — look no further than the race for the best actress Oscar.

White actresses rule La La Land — and the power they wield is embedded in the lust of studio executives — who use their mighty influence to fund fantasies with the help of pompous directors who are given a shitload of dough to produce trashy offerings like Red Sparrow and the upcoming Amy Schumer starrer — I Feel Pretty.

White actresses are given the freedom to play a variety of roles that are either Oscar-worthy or more in line for a shoutout from the Razzies — either way they are allowed to be creatively exploratory even when the stakes are high.

Black actresses suffer from the burden of being talents of color who are automatically branded as “high-risks” — which means that casting them opposite leading men will always be considered a gamble that isn’t worth the leap — unless she resembles Paula Patton. In that case it’s doable — even if she can’t act for shit.

Only time will tell if the current adherence to diversity will expand enough to give Black actresses that look like Lupita Nyong’o the leverage they need to finally land the kind of jobs that could make a positive impact — by leveling the playing field — and possibly revamping the best actress field so that it reflects “the best of the best” in equal measure — instead of the traditional “whitewashing” that still persists.

In the meantime — #OscarsSoWhite will continue to haunt the Academy — as it should.

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