Oscars So Very Incredibly Racist: Investigating 88 Years Of Academy Awards For Acting

On Thursday, 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 spiraled out of control.

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 very few movies about POC would get made otherwise, but it is troubling that Hollywood and the Academy 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.

Obviously I did not get this post done on Thursday. Eventually I enlisted a research assistant (aka my girlfriend) and have worked on this post 12 hours a day for the last three days and all morning today, and now WordPress is slowing down and we’re mere hours away from the Oscars, which means I must usher it into the world and go to the grocery store despite there being a lot more I’d like to talk about! I apologize in advance for any errors, there was a lot of material to wade through. I wish I’d started this two weeks ago!

Furthermore, figuring out how to assemble and present this information, which involves the sensitive task of dividing people into groups based on ethnic background / heritage / descent, was a monumental task in and of itself. I hope what I settled on, which came out of research, online guides, and also the terminology used by my sources, makes sense to people. If not, don’t hesitate to e-mail me, riese [at] autostraddle [dot] com. Because it’s the weekend, I have to publish this without another editor looking it over first, which always makes me nervous.

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

For starters, East, Southeast and South Asian representation! 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.


There were no stand-out patterns amongst performances that garnered nominations for Latino actors, aside from the fact that a lot of them were playing white/anglo characters. Four nominations come from Alejandro González Iñárritu movies.


A much larger group of black actors and actresses have been nominated for Academy Awards, but it’s still a pretty dismal state of affairs, especially when so many films featuring black actors are snubbed year after year. 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.


North African and Middle Eastern nominees are few and far between, I found only two (included in the timeline below), Omar Sharif in 1962 and Shohreh Aghdashloo in 2003.  This 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 three Native American / 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.

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!

My primary source, unless otherwise cited, was Wikipedia.


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


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



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.



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.


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.


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


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.”



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.


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



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


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.



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.


Aline MacMahon in “Dragon Seed”


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



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 Sondergaard


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


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.



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.


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


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.”


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.


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


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



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



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.


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.


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.


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.



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


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.



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.


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


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.


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


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.



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?


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.


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


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



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.


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.


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.



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


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.


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.



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.


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


Haing S. Ngor in “The Killing Fields”


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.


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. 


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.


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. Bernardo Bertolucci, its Italian director, wins a Best Director statue.


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.


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.


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.”


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


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.



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.


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.


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.)


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


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.'”


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


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


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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”


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


Six actors of color are nominated in 2006.



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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.”)”


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


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.


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



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.


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.


In Best Picture Nominee The Martian, white actress Macknezie 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.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief 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 2707 articles for us.


  1. Quick correction re: Lawrence of Arabia. The white man who played Prince Faisal was Alec Guinness (of Obi-wan Kenobi fame, etc.), not Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence (and is pictured in both of those pictures, looking very white, since both he and his character were British).

  2. Amazing work, thank you.

    One detail missing in the 1987 nominations/winners.

    Norma Aleandro was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film Gaby: A True Story. She plays Florencia Sánchez Morales, a Mexican woman that was the caretaker of Gabriela Brimmer. Aleandro is an Argentinean actress. That was a close call for Hollywood, at least she was born in Latin America.

  3. This was really informative, thank you! Laying it all out like you have (very straight-forward and readable!) really emphasizes how very, very problematic the Oscars’ lack of diversity is.

  4. That picture of Laurence Olivier. Oh boy.

    Don’t even get my started on Exodus:Gods and Kings, Gods of Eygpt and the Price of Persia resorting to similar Brownface tactics in this day and age because “People of color don’t sell movies”. But Joel Edgerton does? I’m glad they all bombed. They deserved those Ls.

    • I’ve seen the trailer of the Gods of Egypt FILM and it is horrible, horrible, horrible. It not only casts white actors for Egyptian Gods, it also applies a ridiculous Judeo Christian view of Good and Evil to an Egyptian Pantheon. Like, really? ANUBIS IS EVIL? How hard is it to do research about this subject? Jeez

      • Ridiculous Judeo Christian view of Good and Evil gets applied to ALL the pantheons, it’s one of the equality in stupid kinda things. They think our minds can’t handle any other view point than a Abrahamified Creator or Destroyer binary.

      • That is true but they still went and browfaced the fair skinned actors. It’s like an extra layer of colourism deciding certain places are a “dark skinned people only place” but not hiring any dark skinned actors. Instead hiring some light skinned ones and sending them to the tanning salon or to make up because they still aren’t dark enough.

        The stupid in such situations is like an onion; It has layers, is frustrating and may cause tears or a burning sensation.

  5. I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought Laurence Olivier was black until I read this. I’ve never seen any of his movies and evidently only know him from photos where he’s in blackface…

  6. I was told that people from Spain aren’t considered poc, as they are colonizers. And if you have colonized a country and from Europe then you can’t be a POC. So, I don’t think Pen lope Cruz counts. I come from Moors, so I’ve been kind of looking into this.

  7. This was a great read thank you.

    That Middle Eastern article was interesting to read. I am familiar with half the people on that list. He wasn’t mentioned in that article(probably cause he is Iranian & Jewish), but I’ve meet Shaun Toub a few times. He played the middle eastern father in Crash(which won an Oscar). I have cousins who are distant relatives to him & they tease him a bit for playing stereotypical middle eastern roles(Iron Man comes to mind). But, on the plus side, I just noticed he played Pintar in the backwards episode of Seinfeld.

    There could be a whole articles on the subtle micro-aggressions in hollywood films.

  8. Wow, this is so thorough and informative! Since all I’ve been doing this week is grading students’ papers, I want to say that I’d give you an A+ and am literally emailing it to my professor now (we’re teaching a class that focuses on the production of stereotypes).

  9. This may sound totally stupid but I remembered, when I was a 13 year old girl, watching “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” and it was the first time in my life I realized the whitewashing side of Hollywood. Not with the movie itself, although it has a bunch of problems, but with one scene in particular: Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee), in a movie theater, watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s when the disgusting scenes of Mickey Rooney as the Japanese landlord are playing and how uncomfortable he looks with what he’s seeing.

    So, Hollywood it’s not just entertainment, it can help you develop awareness/conscience, even in a 13 year old girl and with one really stupid movie.

  10. Oh God. Affleck in Argo. I can’t believe that happened four years ago. It’s like straight out of a 40s flick. This is a good enlightening list. Still laughing over magic negro so much.

    Just a quick correction though. In no. 10, it’s Pilipina (the Philippines’ official name is Pilipinas). That error doesn’t make this article any less awesome though.

    Anyway, hoping to see a fairer Academy this year

  11. I’d forgotten that 2008 Supporting Actress race…who knew it’d be the precursor to the 2015 Best Actress Emmy race? It’s curious how many black actresses, post Oscar nominations, end up on television rather than in other high profile movie roles.

    Thanks for putting this post together, Riese (and Riese’s girlfriend). It really helped add context to the longstanding #OscarsSoWhite problem.

    • They either end up in television, shitty indies or they rarely work. What’s Monique doing right now? Viola Davis is one of the best actresses of ANY ETHNICITY working today and even she is not getting the kind of movie offers she should be getting. Neither is Octavia Spencer. Jennifer Hudson is doing Broadway, which is a good fit for her, but she is not really getting many movie or tv offers either. Queen Latifah just had one of the best performances of the year in Bessie and I just saw a commercial today where she is playing some type of Mammy character in Christian film. Why? And Lupita is getting cast as talking animals and CGI characters. In big blockbusters admittedly but I think you know what I’m getting at. Meanwhile, I bet you my first born child that Brie Lawson and Alicia Vikander are about to be booked solid in lead roles for the next five years much like Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to the A List. My point is these women have all either won or been nominated for major acting awards and aren’t getting as many offers as their white counterparts who have been up for those same awards.

  12. I’m not sure quite how to write this without possibly coming off as offensive but there’s something that really frustrated me about Asian representation (on top of the general lack of it).

    As an East Asian, while I know that Indians are of course Asians as well, we just look so different and our cultures are so different that when someone put a South Asian on the screen to tick off the Asian quota, I just don’t feel represented.

    That is not at all to say East Asian instead of South Asian, but can’t we have more of both instead of one or the other?

    Apart from Master of None, I struggle to think of when I’ve seen both East and South Asians on screen together.

    • Harry and Kumar yo! Also the demon who appears in the first part of Constantine is Pilipina (she says “we will kill you” in perfect raspy Tagalog) but she’s casted as East Asian. Because you know, Asian. Lol

      I understand where you’re coming from. I’m Southeast Asian (that part of our continent isn’t even mentioned at all in the stats) and that makes it even harder for me to find a representation in films, and I’m usually placed in the South Asian category.

      Bottom line: just because it has an Asian in it, doesn’t mean it’s representing the entire continent. It’s a huge continent and yeah, we get it Hollywood, it’s very difficult to represent every damn ‘kind’ of ‘Asian’ in your film because there’s just too ‘many kinds’, but what we shouldn’t be lumped together.

      This is a reflection of how badly Hollywood needs to diversify just about everything. Everything.

      • If those are the only instances we could think of… lol.

        Here’s the thing, I’m actually an East Asian who was born and raised in a Southeast Asian country, LOL. So I feel you about Southeast Asian representation. People I see around me everyday in real life and it’s like Hollywood doesn’t know they exist XD

    • That frustrates me too!

      I just started watching “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” this week, and it has a Filipino guy with East Asian friends. I can’t say I recommend the show, but that’s one other instance… the only other one I can think of.

  13. So, a quick run down

    Chris Rock monologue was, for my taste, a little too week: diversity in Hollywood is not only a black issue; it’s a black issue, a Latino issue, an Asians issue, a women’s issue. At this time the only diversity that Hollywood recognizes is whites with blonde hair and whites with dark hair.

    Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short, a movie that all the time tries to make me feel the pain of a bunch of thieves that fucked the world (especially the role of Christian Bale). Nice move, Academy.

    Best Original Song? I can’t even talk about this.

    No more tears from DiCaprio? This subject is finally over, let’s give the floor to the next mediocre actor (for me he only deserves 2 nominations, and not even for best actor, for 2 movies he made in the early years of his career: This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, that’s it).

    Well, I think the Independent Spirit Award are more my thing.

  14. When you’re from Grece, are you regarded as a person “of color” in the US? Re: “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 Tolls.”

  15. When you’re from Greece, are you regarded as a person “of color” in the US? Re: “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 Tolls.”

  16. (Sorry about the triple post!) Also, I remember watching “The Green Line” when it came out on TV and thinking “wow that film suuuucks! But for some reason, I’m confused because it feels like I’m supposed to think it’s great because of its production quality. Like I don’t have to like it but I should acknowledge it’s good.” Though at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it or phrase it. But naw, it’s downright mediocre.

  17. Hi Riese! Could you please please amend this to remove the Spanish actors and actresses? I love this otherwise and it is clear how much time went into this, but that completely ruins it for me. Spanish people are EUROPEAN. They are WHITE WHITE whiter than white. Like this is their queen and her daughters the princesses: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/10/12/1413122072879_wps_62_Spanish_Queen_Letizia_C_a.jpg

    You know who also is Spanish? Martin Sheen (real name: Ramón Estévez). So c’mon! He’s not a PoC. Spain was the colonizer of Latin American indigenous people!

    • cuarón is mexican, full stop. white-looking latinos are still latinos. he may have white passing privilege but he still has a racialized identity.

      riese, i’d also add iñárritu to 2014 and 2015.

      • There’s no such thing as a Latino race. Just as there’s no such thing as a North American race. Latin America is comprised of all races, just like North America. After all, Latin refers to Spanish and Portuguese, Romance(Latin) languages. Of course, the way that Latin America became Latin, and got its white population, contains much worse aspects of racism than movie casting.

  18. This is great–a really amazing piece of work, and I’m so grateful for the incredible amount of work that went into it. It really makes apparent so many appalling trends.

    I especially appreciate your parsing some of the complexity around multiracial and white-passing actors, whose casting seems to be increasing. It’s wonderful if audiences of color can see themselves in such actors, and I definitely don’t blame them for advancing their careers however they can, but it doesn’t change the fact that Hollywood is perpetuating racist structures with that casting.

    It also makes apparent how many of the better roles for actors of color come in deeply racist films (Monster’s Ball, The Help). So much work to be done…

  19. The fact that you needed to write “OPENLY Asian-American Woman” in reference to Miyoshi Umeki is so damn sad.

    I’ve never taken any interest in the Oscars myself, because every year it’s the same lack of diversity, the same ignorant discussions. You’ve always got those clueless people who say,

    “Well, maybe no black actors in films this year were good enough…”

    Okay, let’s assume that’s the case. Let’s forget about the pre-Oscars rumours that films like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” were going to create some major awards waves, and say that every black actor in every Hollywood film this year turned in a forgettable performance.

    The only reasons that that could possibly be the case is because of a) the tremendous *lack of opportunities* for black actors to play rich and nuanced roles, and b) the fact that the people who decide which performances are “good enough” are a bunch of old white dudes.

    The only things stopping black actors (and really all POC) from winning awards have nothing to do with the actors and their abilities, and everything to do with the fact that we live in a racist-ass society where the system is rigged against them.

  20. Oh, and I hate the old, “I can’t identify with a black/Asian/Middle Eastern/Latino/First Nation character” mentality. If you can identify with characters who are robots, vampires, aliens, fish, lions, cats, dogs, and dinosaurs, I think you can identify with a human being whose skin tone is a little different than yours.

  21. To be fair, given that Othello’s dark complexion is a significant element of the story, non-black actors can only play him in blackface. So, should only black Shakespearean actors be allowed to play him?

    • If only black/African people played Othello, it would be more convincing as an entire context of a life lived within intersecting discrimination and injustices.
      The issue is that of diversity of representation of humanity within film, and eroding the stranglehold of power that the Academy Awards voting group has in determining which stories are told, by whom, and their access. It is a tangent that you are adressing, whereas I am in interested in the main issue.

  22. Hello,

    I apologise for my english, I don’t speak English very well. But Fernanda Montenegro can’t be considered “Latina”, she is white. To put her in this list to explain how racist Hollywood is, is totally wrong. In Brazil we only see people like her on the television on cinema etc… Only people with european heritage like Fernanda. If Fernanda Montenegro can be a example for discrimination from latinas in Hollywood, then we must believe Gisele Bündchen has a very hard life as a “latina” in the High Fashion World…

  23. this is such good work, riese, thanks for the toil & trouble! i’ll add – (& i say this as an outsider) we especially need a greater range of latinx voices in the industry, like afrolatinx representation.

  24. I know I am late to the party on this but this is AMAZING!! I have never read anything quite so detailed – this is fascinating. I am a disabled actor, and through work with Equity have been involved in lots of stuff on diversity and this is one of the most in depth things I have read. Will definitely be sharing!

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