A still-percolating controversy has permeated this year’s Academy Awards because of the absence of black nominees, particularly in the high profile acting categories. But this is hardly the first time that black performers failed to impress Academy voters. Indeed, it appears the #OscarsSoWhite crowd needs to look back over the years to see how many great performances by black stars were overlooked when the Academy Award nominations were being handed out.
For your historic consideration, here are 10 of the most notable snubs of African American performances by Academy voters.
1. Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones” (1933). Robeson had already achieved star status on Broadway and concert halls when he made his sound film debut in this adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill drama. Despite a stunning performance that was equal parts charisma, brutality and tragedy, Robeson would not be considered for the Oscar due to the controversy surrounding the film’s use of racial epithets and a weak distribution by United Artists.
2. Rex Ingram in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940). The offbeat casting of an African American as the non-racial genie was an inspired decision, and Ingram responded to this brilliantly written role with a wonderfully loud and flamboyant performance. However, the Academy had already broken one racial barrier by honoring Hattie McDaniel a year earlier, so the possibility of a second African American going for the Oscar for a supporting role was out of the question.
3. Lena Horne in “Cabin in the Sky” (1943). This film marked the only time during Horne’s years as an MGM contract player that the studio gave her a full-throttle role rather a brief but flashy guest appearance. She responded to this rare opportunity with a sexy and witty performance as the seductive Georgia Brown, stealing the film and securing her position as Tinseltown’s first black sex symbol. Alas, the Academy voters of that year turned a cold shoulder to Hollywood’s sole non-white female star.
4. James Edwards in “Home of the Brave” (1949). Produced by Stanley Kramer, “Home of the Brave” was among the post-World War II wave of films that broke taboos concerning prejudice in America. Edwards starred as a paralyzed soldier under the care of a psychoanalyst that suspects the injured man is suffering from psychosomatic terror rather than physical disability – a point confirmed in a startling climactic challenge wrapped in a racial slur. Edwards offered a haunting performance in a difficult role, and his failure to receive an Oscar nomination was among the more prominent omissions of that year’s awards competition.
5. Canada Lee in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951). Primarily known as a stage actor, Lee appeared in a few small roles in films (most notably in Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”) before being signed to the starring role as the rural South African minister who travels to Johannesburg in search of his missing son. Despite his deeply moving performance and the film’s commercial success, Oscar voters shunned Lee because he was cited on the Hollywood blacklist. The actor died in 1952, most ignored by a film industry that made him a pariah thanks to McCarthy-era hysteria.
6. Ethel Waters in “The Member of the Wedding” (1952). Waters had made history as the second African American performer to receive an Oscar nomination for “Pinky” (1949), but her finest screen role came when she repeated her Broadway triumph as the loving housekeeper who serves as confidante to an awkward teenager (Julie Harris). Waters received top billing, the first time a black actor gained that status in a multiracial Hollywood studio production, but Oscar voters gave their Best Actress nod to Harris rather than Waters.
7. Pearl Bailey in “Carmen Jones” (1954). Yes, everyone knows that Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in this Otto Preminger riff on the Bizet opera. But the film was effectively stolen by sly Pearl Bailey, whose only solo number – a wild rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum” – stopped the film with an electrifying thrust of musical power. But having two African Americans in contention for the Oscar would have been too progressive for the Academy voters of that time, so Bailey’s star-turn was not considered.
8. Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love” (1967). Poitier had already broken the color barrier by winning the Best Actor Oscar for “Lillies of the Field” (1963) and by becoming the first black star to top the box office charts. He scored an astonishing triple-play in 1967 with three major hit films – “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “To Sir, With Love.” And while he failed to receive a Best Actor nomination for any of these, the failure to gain recognition for “To Sir, With Love” is especially unfortunate because his work as a wise London teacher helping a class of unruly students become mature adults it is, arguably, his finest on-screen achievement.
9. Sammy Davis Jr. in “Sweet Charity” (1969). Despite a few well-received film performances, most notably in “Porgy and Bess” (1959, as Sportin’ Life) and the starring role of “A Man Called Adam,” Davis rarely found movie roles that took full advantage of his performing versatility. His supporting role as Big Daddy Brubeck in “The Rhythm of Life” number, in which he plays a hippie guru preaching the gospel of a highly unusual religion, was his finest on-screen moment, using his vocal and comedy skills to their fullest. Sadly, “Sweet Charity” was a critical and commercial flop and Davis’ standout work was passed over by unsympathetic Oscar voters.
10. Carl Weathers in “Rocky” (1976). As Apollo Creed, Weathers was striking as the villain whose backfired promotional scheme was the core of this Oscar-winning Best Picture. Although the film’s other main stars – Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith and Burt Young – snagged Oscar nominations, the omission of Weathers’ larger-than-life work was more than a little unfortunate.
Oscar Snubs of Black Actors
The absence of nonwhite actors among this year’s Academy Award nominees refueled the #OscarsSoWhite movement and sparked conversations on diversity in Hollywood.
Sammy Davis Jr. in “Sweet Charity”
Sammy Davis. Jr. as Big Daddy Brubeck, performing “The Rhythm of Life” number in the 1969 film “Sweet Charity.” Davis, incredibly, did not get an Oscar nomination for his work.
Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones” (1933
Robeson had already achieved star status on Broadway and concert halls when he made his sound film debut in this adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill drama. Despite a stunning performance that was equal parts charisma, brutality and tragedy, Robeson would not be considered for the Oscar due to the controversy surrounding the film’s use of racial epithets and a weak distribution by United Artists.