At the 12th Academy Awards in 1940, actress and radio performer Hattie McDaniel became the first Black American to take home an Oscar. McDaniel snagged the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy,” an enslaved servant, to Vivien Leigh’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” Because of racial segregation, however, the award winner was barred from attending the movie’s premiere in Atlanta, Ga., and was forced to accept her award at a “Whites Only” hotel in Los Angeles.
McDaniel continued to play the stereotypical “Mammy” role onscreen, sparking criticisms from leaders of the NAACP and others. The actress issued a personal response to critics in a 1947 article for the Hollywood Reporter, saying, “I have never apologized for the roles I play. I’ve been told [by critics] that I’ve kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatre-goers … [Well], I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
In 2002, acclaimed actor Denzel Washington earned an Academy Award for his role as dirty detective Alonzo Harris in the 2001 film “Training Day.” While the crime thriller received much praise and raked in nearly $104.5 million at the box office, some critics were displeased with the negative, “gangsta” stereotype played by Washington in the movie.
However, director Antoine Fuqua said they worked to ensure that the actor’s character “was contemporary from what we know on the streets.” Fuqua added that Washington’s character was, “a bit of a gangster, but he’s charming, he’s sexy and he’s intelligent and he’s mean and he’s tough. He’s the guy that we all wish we could be.”
Halle Berry earned an Oscar in 2002 for her role as the titular character Leticia in the film “Monster’s Ball,” co-starring Billy Bob Thornton. Berry’s character is a working mother struggling to support her morbidly obese son. On top of her domestic issues, Leticia faces financial woes, leading to the repossession of the family’s car and an eviction notice on her home. To top it all off, her son’s father is on death row. She goes on to develop a romantic relationship with Thornton’s character, which plays out in a jaw-dropping sex scene.
Legendary actress Angela Basset, who was supposed to play Leticia in the film, refused the role, saying she “wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film.” “Film is forever,” she added, [and] it’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later.”
In 2010, comedienne Mo’Nique won an Academy Award for her role in the film “Precious,” where she played an abusive, alcoholic mother on welfare who subjects her only daughter to incest, sexual violence and emotional trauma.
The film, based on the novel “Push” sparked an intense debate about how the movie portrays African-Americans, women and poor people.
Taraji P. Henson
The “Baby Boy” actress snagged a Golden Globe in 2016 for Best Actress in a TV Drama for her role as Cookie Lyon on the hit show “Empire.” During her nearly 2-minute acceptance speech, Henson poked fun at the fact that it took nearly 20 years to earn such an award — and that it was for her role as an ex-convict.
“Who knew that playing an ex-convict would take me all around the globe?” the actress joked. “It just goes to show that — I thought it would be for … my character in ‘Karate Kid.’ But it was Cookie, who spent 17 years in jail for selling crack.”
Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the 2011 movie “The Help” where she played a maid named Minny Jackson.
While the film was a box office success, raking in $217 million, some critics argued that the movie and the roles played by Spencer and acclaimed actress Viola Davis did nothing more than reinforce “mammy” propaganda. Critics of the film also felt that the movie reinforced the age-old Hollywood trope of the “white savior” (played by Emma Stone) who swoops in to save a group of struggling Blacks who otherwise can’t help themselves.