Oscars So Very Incredibly Racist: Investigating 92 Years Of Academy Awards For Acting

In 2016, inspired by the #OscarsSoWhite conversation and other conversations about racial diversity at the Oscars that have started since then, I volunteered to write a post listing all the white actors who had been nominated for Oscars for playing people of color.  As I did the research for that post, however, a few other things came up that I wanted to look into, and thus this project quickly evolved into something more.

Firstly, I wanted to add milestones to the timeline about when actual people of color were nominated for Oscars, but what I was learning in order to pinpoint these milestones was so interesting that I started looking further. Before long, I’d created an extensive spreadsheet situation holding a wealth of data I’ve only just begun to analyze.

Secondly, throughout my research I grew increasingly interested in other ways white people have acquired Oscars on the backs of people of color or otherwise refused to cede the floor — e.g., white savior narratives and white filmmakers telling POC stories. I’m not saying it’s bad for a white person to write or direct a story about people of color (which isn’t really for me to say, anyhow, as I am white), certainly not as many movies about POC would get made otherwise, but it is troubling that Hollywood and the Academy seem to require white involvement behind-the-scenes or white centrality on-screen for these movies to even get made or celebrated. This isn’t an indictment of individual directors or producers, but of an entire industry and an entire Awards show and, well, an entire culture.

Now, it is 2020, and I’ve returned to this post to update it. The past few years saw great strides for Black representation specifically, but this year’s nominations are a huge step backwards. And we’ve yet to make significant progress on Asian, Indigenous, Latinx and North African / Middle Eastern representation.

Before we get into the timeline, I want to briefly go over what I observed from my spreadsheet.

East, Southeast and South Asian Actors

Spoiler alert: there’s not much. Patterns: many of the actors are white-passing and/or play white roles, a lot of Ben Kingsley, and a lot of movies about war. I also found a troubling trend in Best Picture nominees: films with majority-Asian casts that were nominated for Best Picture failed to garner any acting nominations. This happened again in 2020 when Parasite was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Production Design and Best Editing — without a single solitary nomination for Acting. The only adjustment I had to make to this infographic when updating it for 2020 was to account for Dev Patel’s 2017 nomination for playing Saroo Brierly in Lion and for Parasite‘s continuation of aforementioned troubling trend. There have been major snubs in recent years, including The Handmaiden, Crazy Rich Asians,The Farewell, Coming Home, Burning, The Grandmaster, Court, The Big Sick, Downsizing and A Taxi Driver.

Latinx and Latin American Actors

There were no stand-out patterns amongst performances that garnered nominations for Latinx actors, aside from the fact that a lot of them were playing white/anglo characters. Four nominations come from Alejandro González Iñárritu movies. The only updates required for this infographic was to account for two actresses nominated for Roma, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. Aparicio, who is of Mixtec and Trique descent, is also the first Indigenous American woman to receive a nomination for Best Actress. Snubs in recent years include actors in Knives Out, Hustlers and Beatriz at Dinner.

Black Actors

A much larger group of black actors and actresses have been nominated for Academy Awards, but it’s still not great, especially when so many films featuring black actors are snubbed year after year (including this one). As discussed in What Does The Academy Value in a Black Performance?, there are certain themes that emerge when looking at what the films earning nominations were about: celebrities (e.g., Ray Charles, Muhammad Ali, Tina Turner), criminal behavior and incarceration, slavery, black people working for or taking care of white people and narratives centered on white saviors and/or white sidekicks. Also, a lot of Martin Ritt and Stanley Kramer movies.

This was the area that required the most updates from 2016 to 2020 — 13 Black actors were nominated for Academy Awards in the last four years, and several won. Films written and directed by Black people like Mudbound, Get Out, Black Panther, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk and BlacKkKlansman  received nominations in various categories. Still, major snubs abounded, including this year’s lack of a nomination for Lupita Nyong’o for Us and Eddie Murphy for Dolemite is My Name.

North African and Middle Eastern nominees are few and far between. There are two who have been nominated (included in the timeline below): Omar Sharif in 1962 and Shohreh Aghdashloo in 2003. In 2019, Rami Malek became the first actor of Egyptian heritage to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Bohemian Rhapsody. The lack of representation in this area is especially egregious considering the accolades heaped upon multiple all-white editions of Cleopatra and the fact that a lot of Academy Award winning films are set in the Middle East.  (Here’s a great article about typecasting of Muslim-American actors specifically: You May Know Me From Such Roles as Terrorist #4.)

Only four Native American / Indigenous / First Nation actors have been nominated for Academy Awards, which is particularly shameful when you consider Hollywood’s rich legacy of redface and the number of films about Native Americans that have garnered awards for white people, such as Dances With Wolves, The Lone Ranger, The Last of the Mohicans, Broken Arrow, Pocahontas, The Revenant and Stagecoach. In 2019, Yalitza Aparicio became the first Indigenous and second Mexican woman nominated for a Best Actress award.

Actress Keisha Castle-Hughes is the only Pacific Islander nominated for an Academy Award I could find — for the really kickass movie Whale Rider. (Although some sources also count Russell Crowe, nominated for Gladiator, because he has a Māori great grandmother.)

Now, let’s get into the timeline, which I hope will give a good overview of how the Academy has handled race and how white people are often more celebrated for stories about people of color than the people of color themselves. Feel free to add more conversation in the comments!


1928

White actor Warner Baxter wins Best Actor for his portrayal of Mexican character The Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona.
in-old-arizona-warner-baxter


1930

White actor George Arliss wins Best Actor for playing South Asian character The Raja in The Green Goddess.

green-goddess-george-arliss-best-actor-nominee-review-academy-awards


1932

Shanghai Express, nominated for Best Picture, features Marlene Dietrich as a courtesan named Shanghai Lily and Swedish actor Warner Oland playing an ostensibly East Asian character Henry Chang. Oland, who was Swedish, had great success playing Asian characters throughout his career, including 16 films in which he played Chinese detective “Charlie Chan.” Chinese-American actress Anna Mae Wong played Hui Fei, one of her few leading roles. Despite taking place in China, very few Chinese actors appeared in the film.

shanghai-express-marlene-dietrich-warner-oland-1932


1934

Cleopatra, an Egyptian queen of North African and Greek heritage, is pretty much always played by white actresses, like Claudette Colbert did in this version. It was nominated for Best Picture.

cleopatra

Also in 1934, The Hays Code, which strongly recommended against onscreen depictions of relationships between white people and black people, went into effect and lasted into the ’50s.


1935

First Asian-American Nominated For an Academy Award for Acting: Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon becomes the first Asian actor nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel.  She remains the only Asian actress ever nominated for Best Lead Actress. However, Oberon claimed to be white throughout her career and passed as white. She didn’t reveal her Indian heritage until 1978, a year before her death.kitty


1936

Russian-born Armenian actor Akim Tamiroff is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Chinese warlord General Yang in The General Died at DawnAccording to Wikipedia, “makeup artist Charles Gemora applied sponge rubber eyelids for one of the actors.”

warlord


1937

White actress Louise Rainer wins Best Actress for playing Chinese servant O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good EarthThe Good Earth was also nominated for Best Picture. Every main character in the cast was played by a white actor in heavy prosthetics and makeup.

good-earth

H.B Warner is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Chinese character Chang in Lost Horizon.

hbwarnerlost


1939

First Black Actor and First Black Woman to be Nominated for or to Win an Academy Award for Acting, First Person of Color to Win An Academy Award For Acting: Black Actress Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black actor to be nominated for and to win an acting Academy Award for playing Mammy, the house slave of Scarlett O’Hara’s family, in Gone With The Windwind


1943

Two white actors, Armenian actor Akim Tamiroff and Greek actress Katina Paxinou, both get Supporting Actor/Actress nominations for playing Pablo and Pilar in For Whom The Bell TollsThe characters were of Spanish descent and therefore not necessarily dark-skinned, but the filmmakers went all-out with the bronzer regardless.

forwhomthebelltolls


1944

White actress Aline MacMahon gets a Best Supporting Actress Nomination for playing Chinese character “Ling Tan’s Wife” in Dragon SeedHer daughter was played by Katherine Hepburn in one of the most egregious examples of yellowface ever.

dragon-seed

Aline MacMahon in “Dragon Seed”


1946

White actress Jennifer Jones is a Best Actress Nominee for playing Mestiza character Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun.

duel


1946

White actress Gale Sondergaard is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Siamese character Lady Thiang in Anna and the King of Siam. White actors Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell also played Siamese characters in the film. (Siam is now known as Thailand.)

gale

Gale Sondergaard


1947

First Hispanic Person Nominated For an Academy Award for Acting: Thomas Gomez is nominated as Best Supporting Actor for playing Pancho in Ride the Pink HorseThe white lead character befriends Pancho and is rewarded with Pancho’s loyalty and devotion. White actress Wanda Hendrix played Mexican-American character Pila.gagin-and-pancho


1949

White actress Jeanne Crain is nominated for a Best Actress for playing half African-American woman Pinky Johnson in Pinky. In the film, the grandmother who raised Pinky, an illiterate black laundress, is played by Ethel Waters, who was also nominated for an Academy Award. Black actresses Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in the role of Pinky, but were turned down in favor of Jeanne Crain. A fight over the censorship of this film by racist assholes in Texas went all the way to the Supreme Court.

pinky


1950

White actor Jeff Chandler is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise in Broken ArrowWhite actress Debra Paget also played a Native American role in the film. Canadian First Nations actor Jay Silverheels was cast as Geronimo. Silverheels later went on to an iconic television role as Tonto, the faithful companion to The Lone Ranger.

jeff-chandler

First Latino Person To Win An Academy Award for Acting: José Ferrer became the first Puerto Rican nominated for Best Supporting Actor when he got a nod in 1948 for playing the King of France in Joan of Arcbut he makes history again in 1950 when he wins Best Actor for playing another French character, Cyrano de Bergerac. He’d later be nominated for playing the French poet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rogue. He was the first Latino actor to be nominated more than once for an Academy Award.Lloyd_Corrigan-José_Ferrer_in_Cyrano_de_Bergerac


1952

Marlon Brando is nominated for Best Actor for his role as Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! A blog I stumbled across while looking for images managed to encapsulate everything wrong with this type of casting when they wrote, “The black and white cinematography (and that glorious mustache) help make [Brando] look more like a Mexican, but it’s his acting deserves the credit for making his performance so believable. It’s not just that he is convincing in the role, he was even nominated for Best Actor, meaning that his performance as a Mexican was one of the best of the year.”

Viva_Zapata_movie_trailer_screenshot_(19)

First Mexican Person To Win an Academy Award for Acting, First Latino Person To Win For Playing a Latino Character: Mexican-Irish actor Anthony Quinn was a three-time Oscar nominee; in 1957 for Wild Is the Wind (he played an Italian character), in 1964 for Zorba the Greek (he played a Greek character) and — the time he won — for “Viva Zapata! in 1952. This would be the first time a Latino actor would win an Academy Award for playing a Latino character. Most of the film’s other main characters were played by white actors — in fact, Pancho Villa was played by the same guy who voices Fred Flintstone.

Annex-Quinn-Anthony-Viva-Zapata_01

Marlon Brando is seated, Anthony Quinn is the one with the bullets


1954

First Mexican Woman To Be Nominated For An Academy Award for Acting: Mexican-American actress Katy Jurado was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing American Indian character Señora Devereaux in Broken Lace, the Comanche wife of Spencer Tracy’s character, Matt Devereaux. Her character is called “Señora” because, as her son tells his girlfriend, “people in town like to pretend she’s Spanish, figure it looks better.” The film is mostly centered on how racism against American Indians impacts her half-white son and white husband.Broken-Lance-1954-4

First Black Person Nominated For Lead Actress: Dorothy Dandridge is nominated for her role as Carmen Jones in Carmen Jones

dorothy-dandridge


1955

White actress Jennifer Jones is nominated for Best Actress for playing Chinese doctor Dr. Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored Thing.

love-many-splendored-thing


1956

The Ten Commandmentsa film based on a Biblical story where characters of Middle Eastern descent were played by white actors, wins Best Picture. 

Also in 1956, the legendary Russian actor Yul Brynnr earns a Best Actor Academy Award for playing King Mongkut of Siam (Siam is now known as Thailand) in The King and I, a role he played on Broadway and on screen and was very well known for.

Screenshot 2016-02-26 15.00.25

Brynner also portrayed Egyptian character Rameses II in The Ten Commandments.

But here’s a twist: Brynner claimed to be of part-Mongol parentage, but this probably wasn’t altogether true. Sources are conflicting on this matter, but it’s pretty intriguing, as Brynnr is one of only two actors listed on Wikipedia as an Asian Best Actor nominee. (The other is Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian.)

Sometimes Brynner said he was half-Japanese and half-Swiss. He consistently claimed that he was born “Taidje Khan” on a Russian island, which wasn’t true. In truth, he was born in the Far Eastern Republic of Russia, moved to China when he was 6, and Paris shortly thereafter. His father was Swiss/German/Russian and his mother was Russian. His paternal grandmother was said to maybe be of part Mongolian/Buryat ancestry.


1957

First and Only Openly Asian-American Woman To Win An Academy Award for Acting, First Japanese-American Woman Nominated for an Academy Award for Acting: Japanese-American actress Miyoshi Umeki wns Best Actress for playing Katsumi, the wife of an American Airman, in Sayonara. The movie’s plot centered around two white soldiers who fell in love with Japanese women and are ostracized because of it it.

sayonara

First Japanese-American man nominated for an Academy Award for Acting: Sessue Hayakawa, considered “the first Asian-American leading man,” is nominated for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
the_Bridge_on_the_River_Kwai_1


1958

First Black man nominated for an Academy Award for Acting: Sidney Poitier receives his first of three nominations for playing Noah Cullen, a black prisoner shackled to a white prisoner (played by Tony Curtis). The two escape prison when a truck crashes in The Defiant Ones and are forced to overcome their differences and work together to survive.

defiant-ones


1959

White actor Hugh Griffith wins Best Supporting Actor for playing Middle Eastern character Sheik Ilderim in Ben-HurBen-Hur also wins Best Picture.

Hugh Griffith Ben-Hur

Susan Kohner, a Czech-Mexican actress, is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing a white-passing African-American woman in the wildly successful film Imitation of LifeBlack actress Juanita Moore is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing the single mother Sarah Jane rejects in order to pass as white.

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner


1961

White actor George Chakiris wins Best Supporting Actor for playing Puerto Rican gang member Bernardo Nuñez in West Side Story. Natalie Wood, a white actress, plays the Puerto Rican female lead in West Side Story, which also won Best Picture.

Actor George Chakiris
First Puerto Rican and first Latina Woman to Win an Academy Award for Acting for playing a Latina character: Rita Moreno wins Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita in West Side Story.

Rita-Moreno_West_S_2484070b


1962

White actor Alec Guinness gets a Best Actor Nomination for playing the Middle Eastern Prince Faisal in Lawrence of ArabiaLawrence of Arabia also wins Best Picture.

lawrncoarabia_403pyxurz

Omar Sharif becomes the first Egyptian and the first North African actor nominated for an Oscar with a Best Supporting Actor nod for Lawrence of Arabia.

Why is that man next to me so pale

Why is that man next to me so pale


1963

White actress Patricia Neal wins Best Actress for playing Alma in HudIn the original novel, Alma’s character was a black housekeeper named “Halema,” but the director changed the character to be white because they didn’t think the film would sell with a black actress at the helm.

hud

Another whitewashed remake of Cleopatra, this one starring Liz Taylor, wins Best Picture in 1963.

cleopatra

Sidney Poitier becomes the first black actor to win a Lead Acting Oscar for his performance in Lilies in the Field, where he plays a handyman who helps a bunch of nuns build a church.

lilies-in-the-field


1965

White actor Laurence Olivier is nominated for Best Actor for playing Othello in Othello. Othello was described as “Moorish,” a term used at the time of the play’s writing to describe a wide array of darker-skinned people. This is just ridiculous:

Did you hear the one about how blackface is the worst?

Did you hear the one about how blackface is the worst?


1967

Black actress Beah Richards is nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing Mrs. Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the mother of a black doctor played by Sidney Poitier whose white fiancé’s parents are not excited about the possibility of their daughter marrying a black person.


1970

First Native American Nominated for an Academy Award for ActingChief Dan George becomes the first Native American nominated for an Academy Award when he’s up for Best Supporting Actor for playing Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man. Little Big Man is the story of Jack, a white boy raised by the compassionate Old Lodge Skins in his Cheyenne village after Jack’s parents are massacred by Pawnees. Prior to giving the role to George, it was offered to Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier. All the extras were played by American Indians, however. Dan George is one of three Native/First Nation actors to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.
Chief Dan George Little Big Man


1971

Cherokee/Irish actor Ben Johnson wins Best Supporting Actor for playing a white pool hall owner in The Last Picture Show.

last-picture-show


1972

Marlon Brando boycotts the Academy Awards ceremony to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry, and sends Apache-Yaqui-Pueblo-French-German-Dutch actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award for Best Actor for The Godfather. Brando had written a 15-page speech inspired by the Wounded Knee Siege but the producer only gives Littlefeather 60 seconds, so she improvises and reads the rest backstage. The Academy forbids proxy acceptance going forward. This remains the only time a Native American woman has given an Oscar acceptance speech, although technically the Oscar was declined.

1972_view_actor_littlefeather_facts

First film with African-American nominees for Best Actress and Best Actor: Black actor Paul Wildfield is nominated for Best Actor and Cicely Tyson for Best Actress for Sounder, about a sharecropping family in Louisiana whose father is sent to prison camp for a petty crime. It was well-reviewed, and according to Wikipedia “was praised as a welcome antidote to the contemporaneous wave of black films, most of which were considered low quality, low budget and exploitative. The film’s depiction of a loving family was hailed as a banner accomplishment for black filmmakers and audiences.”

Diana Ross is nominated for Best Actress for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. This was the first time more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress in the same year.

They lost to Liza Minelli for Cabaret.


Between 1975 and 1980, no actors of color are nominated for Oscars.


1981

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is nominated for Best Picture. It includes a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies, playing an Arab-Egyptian character named Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir.

Sallaaaaahh


1982

Linda Hunt wins Best Supporting Actress for playing an Chinese-Australian person with dwarfism named Billy Kwan in The Year of Living DangerouslyYup.

linda-hunt

Ben Kingsley wins a Best Actor statue for starring in Gandhi, which also wins Best Picture. In doing so, he becomes the first East, Southeast or South Asian actor to win an Academy Award for Lead Actor. Kingsley’s mother is British and his father is Indian, and his skin was darkened to play the role.

gahndi

Louis Gossett, Jr, is the first black man to win Best Actor in a Supporting Role for playing a Naval Officer Trainer in An Officer and a Gentleman.

an-officer-and-a-gentleman


1984

This was a big year for movies that weren’t (just) about white people: Best Picture nominees included A Soldier’s Storywith a mostly-black cast set in Louisiana near the end of World War II; The Killing Fields, set in Democratic Kampuchea during Vietnam with a Cambodian actor, Haing S. Ngorwinning Best Supporting Actor; and A Passage to India, set in India during the British Raj. Although only white actors were nominated for A Passage to India, three actors of color were nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1984. Japanese-American actor Pat Morita was nominated for playing Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.

mr-miyagi-resized-600

No East, Southeast or South Asian actors have won an Oscar since Haing S. Ngor’s win in 1984.

dith

Haing S. Ngor in “The Killing Fields”


1985

The Color Purple is nominated for 11 awards, including Best Picture and acting nods for black actresses Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery. It does not win in any category.

color-purple

Kiss of the Spider Woman, a book adaptation from Brazilian director Héctor Eduardo Babenco, is nominated for Best Picture, and white actor William Hurt wins a Best Actor Oscar for playing a gay Latino character named Luis Molina. Molina is in a Brazilian prison with leftist revolutionary Valentin Arregui, played by Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá. 

kiss-of-the-spider-woman-william-hurt

William Hurt as Luis Molina

But Best Picture and a bunch of other awards went to Out of Africa, an intensely problematic colonialist fantasy that has since inspired many themed weddings and a Taylor Swift music video.

In fact, despite the many people of color represented in top feature film categories that year, all the winners were white.


1987

The Last Emperorproduced by Jeremy Thomas, wins Best Picture without acquiring a single acting award nomination, one of 11 films in Oscar History to do so. It also becomes one of the most nominated films of all time. All in all, The Last Emperor wins 9 Oscars, representing 15 different human beings, 13 of whom were white. (The two non-white winners were Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Chinese composter Cong Su.)

last-emporer

At this point in Oscar history we start seeing a lot less white people playing people of color and a lot more white people telling stories about people of color that are centered on white people or include white savior elements.

Cry Freedom, a standby on the white savior list, earns Denzel Washington his first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.

Denzel-Washington-Best-Roles-Cry-Freedom

Morgan Freeman is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a pimp named “Fast Black” in Street Smart.

Argentinian actress Norma Aleandro is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing a Mexican character, Florencia Sánchez Morales, in Gaby: A True Story.


1988

White actors Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand are nominated for Acting Oscars for Mississippi Burning, a white savior narrative which sees two FBI agents investigating the murder of a black Civil Rights Organizer in the south. Director Alan Parker said of the choice to center the story on white people, “The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way.”

Mississippi-Burning-14

Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos is nominated for Best Actor for playing math teacher Jamie Escalante in Stand and Deliver


1989

Denzel Washington wins an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Glory, playing an escaped slave who joins a platoon during the Civil War. It’s a good movie but like many of Ed Zwick’s flicks, there’s some serious white savior narratives going on.

glory


1990

Dances With Wolves, the epitome of a white savior narrative, wins Best Picture. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role and many other Native actors appeared in the film. White actors Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell also earn nominations, and Kevin Costner wins for Best Director.

dances_with_wolves_ver4_xlg

Whoopi Goldberg wins Best Supporting Actress for playing Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, a con artist posing as a medium who helps Patrick Swayze’s ghost communicate with his wife.


1992 – 1994

Over this span of time six black actors, one Puerto Rican actress (Rosie Perez, Fearless) and one Chinese-Canadian actress (Jennifer Tilly, Bullets Over Broadway) are nominated for Academy Awards for acting in films including Shawshank Redemption, Malcom X, What’s Love Got To Do With It, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction. All acting winners for all three years are white. No actors of color were nominated in 1995 or 1997.


1996

Cuba Gooding Jr. triumphantly wins Best Actor in a Supporting Role for playing Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire, a rare case of a black actor nominated or winning for a comedic role. (Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost might be the other best example of this.)

cuba

Black British actress Marianne Jean-Baptise is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Secrets & Lies, the first Black British actress to get a nomination.


1999

The Green Milea film described by AlterNet as “so racist because its storyline is one of the most unbelievable in Hollywood history. It is only believable through the illogic of racist ideas,” is nominated for Best Picture. Black actor Michael Clarke Duncan is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing John Coffeya character Alternet describes as a “picture perfect rendition of racists beloved archetypal ‘Magic Negro.'”

green-mile

Denzel Washington is also nominated for Best Actor for playing boxer Rubin Cartner in the The Hurricaine. All acting winners are white.


2000

Benicio del Toro wins Best Supporting Actor for Traffic, which is the last time a Latino actor won an Oscar.

Benicio-del-Toro-in-Traffic

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nominated for Best Picture and nine other Academy Awards. Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee wins Best Director, but no actors from the film are nominated for Academy Awards.


2001

First Black Woman to Win Lead Actress Oscar: Halle Berry wins Best Actress for Monster’s Ball!  

monsters-ball

First Black Actor to Win an Oscar for a Movie Directed By A Black Person: Denzel Washington wins Best Actor for Training Day (beating Will Smith, nominated for Ali).

Training-Day-2001

White actress Jennifer Connelly wins Best Supporting Actress for playing El Salvadorian Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind.


2002

Queen Latifah is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Best Picture winner Chicago.


2003

First Pacific Islander Nominated for an Acting Award: Australian-Māori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes becomes the first Pacific Islander nominated for an Academy Award for Acting when she is nominated for her performance in Whale Rider, as a 12-year-old Māori girl who wants to be chief of her tribe. This also makes her the youngest Academy Award nominee for Lead Actress.

WHALE RIDER, Keisha Castle-Hughes, 2002, (c) Newmarket

First Middle Eastern Actress Nominated for an Academy Award for Acting: Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is nominated for playing Nadereh “Nadi” Behrani in The House of Sand and Fog.

aghdashloo1

Black actor Djimon Hounsou is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for In America. He is the first black actor born in Africa to be nominated.

Benecio Del Toro is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 21 Grams.

Japanese actor Ken Watanabe is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Lord Katsumoto in The Last Samurai. It’s another film from Glory‘s Ed Zwick, with similar white savior overtones (white army official personally embodies an effort to liberate people of color).  Tom Cruise, despite not being the Last Samurai referenced in the title, was made to seem that way on the movie poster, to much confusion.

All acting winners are white.


2004

Six actors of color are nominated in 2004. Morgan Freeman wins Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby and Jamie Foxx is nominated twice — Supporting for Collateral, and Best Actor for Ray, which he wins. AND Don Cheadle is nominated for Best Actor for Hotel Rwanda! AND AND AND Sophie Okonedo is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Hotel Rwanda! Also, Catalina Sandino Moreno is the first Colombian actress nominated for an oscar when she gets a Best Actress nod for Maria Full of Grace.

Jamie Foxx in "Ray"

Jamie Foxx in “Ray”


2005

Black actor Terrence Howard is nominated for Best Actor for Hustle & Flow.


2006

Six actors of color are nominated in 2006.

"Dreamgirls"

“Dreamgirls”

Forest Whittaker wins Best Actor for Last King of ScotlandJennifer Hudson wins Supporting Actress for DreamgirlsWill Smith is nominated for Best Actor for The Pursuit of Happyness and Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting for Dreamgirls.

Mexican actress Adriana Barraza and Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi are nominated for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel.

White director Paul Greengrass is nominated for United 23, which features British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla.

Letters From Iwo Jima, a Japanese-American film based on a book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, is nominated for Best Picture and its director, Clint Eastwood, is nominated for Best Director. The film was produced by Clint EastwoodRobert Lorenz, and Steven Spielberg, with an Oscar-nominated Screenplay by Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis. The majority of the film’s cast are Japanese characters played by Japanese actors, including Ken WatanabeNo actors are nominated for Academy Awards for Letters From Iwo Jima.

Director Clint Eastwood, interpreter Yuki Ishimaru, and actor Ken Watanabe on the set of "Letters From Iwo Jima."

Director Clint Eastwood, interpreter Yuki Ishimaru, and actor Ken Watanabe on the set of “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

Leonardo DiCaprio is nominated for Best Actor in Blood Diamond, a white savior narrative in which he plays a racist white mercenary who rescues a Sierra Leonese prisoner and his son from revolting rebels. As written in a review of the film in The Age, “If there is anything black people the world over have learned from Hollywood – and there isn’t a whole lot – it’s that no matter how bleak the situation seems, they can always rely on some resourceful, charismatic white person to bail them out.” Black actor Djimon Hounsou, who played the prisoner befriended by DiCaprio, is also nominated for an Oscar.


2007

Black actress Ruby Dee is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing the mother of an up-and-coming crime lord in American Gangster.


2008

Taraji P. Henson is nominated for Supporting Actress for playing Queenie, Benjamin Button’s caretaker in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Viola Davis is nominated for playing Mrs. Miller in Doubt.


2009

Sandra Bullock wins Best Actress for The Blind Side, another pitch-perfect example of a white savior narrative. Her character is a white mother and football fan who takes in and raises black future Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Micheal Oher. The Blind Side is also nominated for Best Picture.

sandra

Also nominated for Best Picture in 2009 is Avatar, which embodies every white savior narrative ever. In i09, Annalee Newitz writes that Avatar “is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare.”

Mo’Nique wins Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing Precious’s abusive mother in Precious, for which Gabourey Sidibe is also nominated but loses (to Sandra Bullock). Morgan Freeman gets a Best Actor nod for playing Nelson Mandela in Invictus.

Slumdog Millionaire, a British film shot in India with a majority Indian cast, wins Best Picture! It is one of 11 films to win Best Picture without acquiring any acting nominations.


2010

Pilipina-Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for True Grit.


2011

The Help, another white savior story, is nominated for Best Picture. Black actress Octavia Spencer wins Best Supporting Actress for playing outspoken maid Minny Jackson.

the-help

Viola Davis is nominated for Best Actress for playing maid Aibileen Clark. In The New York Times’ recent analysis of which black characters earn Oscar nominations, it is noted that “in the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so. (The exception is Viola Davis, for the 2011 drama “The Help.”)”


2012

White actor Ben Affleck plays Hispanic CIA Agent Tony Mendez in Argo, which inexplicably wins Best Picture.  

Ben-Affleck-Argo1

White director Quentin Tarantino and white actor Christopher Waltz win Oscars for Django Unchained, the story of a white bounty hunter and the slave he freed, Django, who set out to free Django’s wife from a sadistic plantation owner. No black actors are nominated.

Black actress Quvenzhané Wallis becomes the youngest actress nominated for a Lead Actor Oscar for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Denzel Washington is nominated for Best Actor for Flight, but loses to Daniel Day-Lewis‘s Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is nominated for Best Picture. Although it has a notably small cast (mostly just um, a boy and his tiger), this is now the fifth time a movie with a majority-Asian cast was nominated for Best Picture but not any acting awards.

All acting winners are white.


2013

12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen becomes the first black director to have their movie win Best Picture.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated for Best Actor for playing Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and Lupita Nyong’o wins for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. Barkhad Abdi is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. Also, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón wins for Best Director for Gravity, a movie about a white woman lost in outer space.

No black actors have been nominated since this year.


2014

Selma receives a Best Picture nominee but nobody in the majority-black cast receives an acting nomination, nor does their black female director Ava DuVernay. In fact, no actors of color are nominated in 2014.


2015

In Best Picture Nominee The Martian, white actress Mackenzie Davis plays Mission Control satellite planner Mindy Park, who was Korean-American in the novel upon which the movie is based.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign begins in reaction to the complete exclusion of people of color from Oscar nominations.


2016

The Oscars take a giant leap forward when Moonlight becomes the first film with an all-black cast and the first LGBT-themed film to win Best Picture. Black actor Mahershala Ali becomes the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award when he takes Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight.

Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress for Fences, making her the first black person to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting with her Oscar, Emmy and Tony wins. In all, seven people of color (six Black actors and one Indian actor) are nominated for acting awards.


2017

Get Out is nominated in four categories — Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, with Jordan Peele winning for Best Screenplay and becoming the first black director to earn three nominations. Denzel Washington is nominated for Roman J. Israel, Esq, Mary J Blige for Mudbound and Octavia Spencer for The Shape of Water. Mudbound‘s Black lesbian writer/director Dee Rees is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but snubbed for Best Director or Best Picture. Coco, which had a Latinx cast, wins Best Animated Film. No Latinx or Asian actors received nominations.


2018

Green Book, which Wesley Morris describes as being part of “a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart,” wins Best Picture. Thwarted nominees include Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther.

Mahershala Ali wins for playing Don Shirley, whose family reports they were left out of the filmmaking process (headed up by a white director and producer). Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma is the first Mexican submission to win Best Foreign Language Film, and Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio, who is of Mixtec and Trique descent, is the first Indigenous American woman to receive a nomination for Best Actress. Rami Said Malek becomes the first actor of Egyptian heritage to win an Oscar, for Bohemian Rhapsody.

All in all, it is the most racially inclusive group of winners in Academy history — people of color win solely or as part of a group for Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary (Short Subject), Best Documentary (Feature), Best Animated Short Film, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.


2019

The Academy Awards returns to its roots of being super-white! All Best Picture nominees are white as hell, except for Parasite. It is the first year South Korean films are nominated for Oscars (another is nominated in the Documentary category). However, Parasite becomes the sixth film with an Asian cast to be nominated for Best Picture but not pick up any acting nominations. One person of color — Cynthia Erivo for Harriet — is nominated for acting. Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce is nominated for playing an Argentinian character in The Two Popes, for which an actual Spanish speaker was hired to dub over Pryce’s Spanish lines.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

101 Comments

  1. I noticed when this article first came out I commented about the movie Crash, which has a few POC starting in the movie, including Terrence Howard, Ludacris, & a couple of Iranian actors & actresses won best picture that year. However, I think only the white people, ie. Sandra Bullock was nominated for acting in that movie. I can’t remember if Terrence Howard was nominated or not. Would that film be also on this list or since it’s a wide cast of people it doesn’t fit?

  2. I’m about to go off a little….sorry for the long post in advance.

    Riese…99% of the films you’ve mentioned that have POC leads or POC casts were in films that I call “persecution porn”. There are very few of these films that my POC friends or family have watched more than once because they’re tired of seeing POCs beaten or mistreated or always having to overcome oppression (with the help of a white saviour). Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve not seen a single frame of the POC films mentioned except Moonlight because I don’t want to see myself or other POCs portrayed as people who have to be beaten down for an hour or more for simply existing. Even with Moonlight, I was a little put off by yet another story about a black kid growing up in a household with an abusive addict. In my 32 years of life, I’ve never met another POC who grew up that way (trust me when I say I grew up poor too) so why is that all that’s portrayed? I know some of those films are headed by POCs but 9.9 times out of 10 those are the only films that will get greenlit. So Hollywood feels like if they are giving us a bone by greenlighting the persecution porn then will complain when POCs don’t go see it by saying the reason why POC films aren’t made is that they don’t make money. No, Karen and John, they don’t make money because that’s not our lives anymore. Black and Latin women are the most educated demographics in the U.S., how about we build a film around them without making them caricatures (I’m looking at you, Tyler Perry)? Trust me there are some Madeas in my family but why is that always on my tv or in theaters? There are hardcore racists in a lot of white people’s families (even the rich ones) that you almost never see in film, so why is that paraded around? Oh because there must be tap dancing negroes or slaves or Latin/black prisoners/felons or victims of Jim Crow or addicts or immigrant housekeepers in order to continue to make non-POCs feel comfortable about their station in life.

    Sorry…I’m just so frustrated by film in general. TV could do better too (and it has gotten better) but it’s still has some growth. That said, TV is FAR better with representation than film.

    Btw…I love “The Color Purple” with a passion of a 1,000 suns. I’ve seen it probably over a thousand times. Growing up I never related to a character more than I did Celie. No white savior either, Celie saved herself.

  3. I’ve almost completely given up on watching Hollywood films, and as this makes clear the Oscars rarely give anything to movies that aren’t in English. Still, it was very interesting (and depressing – so much exploitative garbage even when the actors are the right ethnicity!) to read. Thanks for putting this together!

    Is it odd to wonder where the white/Middle Eastern line gets drawn through West Asia? Based on the Akim Tamiroff/Shohreh Aghdashloo difference it looks like it’s the border between Armenia and Iran? I’m in Canada and when I’ve seen discussions about diversity in Canadian film, Armenian-Canadians actors like Arsinée Khanjian are usually called West Asian rather than white. But I know the lines can be different in the US – and obviously any line is going to be a bit arbitrary (I’m Azeri by heritage and it seems like we’re white when people are making one political point and middle eastern when it’s a different one).

      • I realise that (although frankly when maps show the greater middle east they actually do include the South Caucasus countries), but you do realise that while the history of the region means that the ethnic areas overlap, right?
        The whole idea of “the middle east” as a ethnic or racial label is an artificial one arbitrarily defined by which power ruled which part post-WWI? I see plenty of maps that include Turkey in both Europe and the Middle East, so how does that work?
        Because wherever the modern borders lie, the ethnic populations cross them (and until some of the ethnic cleansings that happened over the past 100 years, did so even more obviously than they do now). So if your dividing line is for nations that were part of the USSR, what does that mean for (for example) the ethnic Armenians or Azeris who are from Iran or Iraq (or the Levant or Egypt)?

        I know that none of this is the focus of this article, and I’m not trying to distract from the main point about the shit levels of representation at the Oscars (because yes, that deserves the attention!) but let’s not pretend that “most maps” are some kind of neutral marker and not an arbitrary holdover of imperialism.

        • You’re right. What I meant was I understand where Riese was coming from when she didn’t include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Middle East map. Yes, there are many Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian people living in the Middle East. But this is a part of a larger debate. Caucasus countries are not politically tied to the Middle East (except Azerbaijan.It does have strong ties with Turkey, but also with Russia)

          I also understand where you’re coming from. I’m from Turkey and if you ask me, there are more similarities than differences between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

          • Thank you both for this question and discussion. I’m half-Armenian and I find this topic very interesting. A historical tidbit that relates to all this: In the 1900s and 1920s in the US, a few court cases ruled in favor of granting Armenians access to naturalization/legal status as “white.” Even though many Armenians still face racism, having access to many of the same rights as white people since then has had a big impact on the opportunities that many Armenians have had access to. I’m guessing that this has influenced how people in the US view Armenians, even if they don’t all know the legal history. I don’t know as much about whether people from other Caucasus countries gained access to “whiteness” at that time or about whether Armenia being a predominantly Christian country had an impact on how this played out, and I’m new to learning a lot of this history, so I apologize if I’ve mistaken any details here. I just find it all fascinating!

          • Your tidbit is very interesting. I read about another case from 1909, the first case to classify Middle Easterners as Caucasian. Syrian-Lebanese defendant won his case by arguing; “If I am Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.”

            I’ve been following the discussion on whether or not to add a MENA category into the Census.It’s really interesting to see the stark difference between older and younger generation. Older generation just want to check the “white” box and move on, but the younger generation want to recognize their identity and community.

          • Just reread my previous comment and realized I should clarify:
            – I said “Armenians” a few time when I meant “Armenian-Americans/Armenians in the US.” I’m sorry for this error.
            – When I say I find this “fascinating,” I mean “convoluted and messed up, and helpful to be learning more about to better articulate some of how racial categories and racist systems operate.”

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