Gabourey Sidibe on the red carpet
Sidibe as Precious
Jennifer Hudson, the Dreamgirl
Oprah Winfrey in the Color Purple
Whoopi Goldberg in the Color Purple
Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues
First Time Nominees
“Ladies who were nominated for Academy Awards for their debut on the big screen”
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
To be nominated for an Academy Award (Oscar) signals the pinnacle of an actor/actress’ career; and to receive one is beyond description in the Hollywood community stratosphere. Some movie stars may go through their entire careers without ever being nominated. But there are a few–a relatively few Black female actresses–who have been nominated for the prestigious award for their first movie on the big screen. Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe is one of them; she was nominated for the Best Actress Award for her role in Precious in 2009. (Everybody love/loved Precious–on and off the screen; she is adorable). In addition to Sidibe, the short list of Black actresses includes Jennifer Hudson (she also won–for Dreamgirls); Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple); and Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues).
GABOUREY SIDIBE (Precious)
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Alice Tan Ridley, an R&B, gospel singer, and Ibnou Sidibe, a Senegalese-born, cab driver, Sidibe attended the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City College of New York, and Mercy College, before landing the dream-of-a-lifetime role in the movie Precious. She played the central character, Precious, a physically and sexually abused sixteen-year old with a four-year-old child by her own father and another one on the way. It was a powerful performance and it won her tremendous critical acclaim.
Not only was she nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2009, she won the NAACP Image Award for outstanding actress in a motion picture; the Hollywood Film Award for Rising Star Award; the Women’s Film Critics Circle Award for Best Young Actress and numerous other awards. Sidibe was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress–Motion Picture Drama, a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and several others. In addition, the film won numerous awards, including a Golden Globe Award and Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award.
Some critics have rendered stereotypical suggestions that since the movie, Precious, seemed so typically urban African American that Sidibe did not really have to do much acting–just be a young, urban Black teenager. But that is not the case. She did command a significant presence in the movie and though her size coincided with the plot’s context, Sidibe earned all the accolades that she has been awarded.
Despite the typical stereotypical ranting of the critics, Sidibe delivered an outstanding portrayal of an obese 16-year-old Black teenager in Harlem, New York, named Claireece “Precious” Jones. The plot focused on Precious’ dysfunctional family: how she became pregnant twice after being raped by her father; her unemployed mother on welfare; and living in Section 8 subsidized, government housing. Her education was suspended because the traumatizing experience made going to school so impossible that Precious needed to see a social worker.
After the incestuous relationship came to light Precious’ life was turned upside down; she left home and ended up in a halfway house with her second baby. (Her grandmother was raising her first child). Her father died of AIDS and the relationship with her mother further deteriorated. At the end of the film, Precious was dedicated to completing her education and improving her life.
The movie was so impactful that it prompted Mary J. Blige to remark, “I’ve actually seen people go through exactly what Precious went through and, I mean, the effect that it had on me is that someone’s doing an uncut version of what some of us need to see in order to be able to come out and speak freely about something that can set them free.”
The correlation between Precious’ determination to improve her life appears to mirror Sidibe’s career; she has already finished shooting her next film, Yelling to the Sky, a Sundance Lab project directed by Victoria Mahoney and starring Zoe Kravitz, in which she plays a bully.
JENNIFER HUDSON (Dreamgirls)
Not only did Jennifer Hudson win an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in her big screen debut for Dreamgirls in 2006, but she also won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress, a BAFTA Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Ironically, she had recently missed being picked as the winner on American Idol. In addition, she won a Grammy Award for her debut album, Jennifer Hudson, released by Arista Records in 2008 and sold over a million copies worldwide. It also spawned a hit single, Spotlight.
In 2005, when Hudson won the role of Effie White in the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls, she had beaten out an array of established names including Raven-SymonÅ½ (the Cosby Show) and Fantasia (American Idol); and was scheduled to be matched up with entertainment heavyweights, Jamie Foxx, BeyoncÅ½ Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover. According to the Dreamgirls story, Hudson’s role as Effie White, earned a total of 29 awards from film critics including Breakthrough Performer of 2006 and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
After becoming one of the few performers–and the only African American–to win an Academy Award for her debut on the big screen and surviving a family tragedy, Hudson’s career opportunities increased by leaps and bounds. She appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine; performed at the Super Bowl XLIII, the Grammy Awards, American Idol, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the White House. In 2007, the Mayor of Chicago, her home town, designated March 6 “Jennifer Hudson Day” in her honor.
Dreamgirls, the movie, was adapted from Dreamgirls, the Broadway Musical and Hudson paid special homage to Jennifer Holliday during her acceptance speech. In the musical, Holliday had played the role for which Hudson had won the Academy Award in the movie. Hudson said: “She (Holliday) was my biggest inspiration.” The Dreamgirls soundtrack was Hudson’s first top 10 hit on the Billboard chart; and the signature song, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going debuted on the Billboard Hot 100.
In addition, Entertainment Weekly declared that when Hudson sang “You’re gonna love me,” it wasn’t just a lyric; it was a fact.
OPRAH WINFREY (the Color Purple)
Ranked as the most influential woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey is usually described by a set of superlatives: the richest, the greatest, the highest, the most, the best, etc. She qualifies for all of those attributes and much more: a television host, producer, philanthropist, billionaire, business mogul, and Academy Award nominee as Best Supporting Actress for her first role on the big screen in the Color Purple in 1985. The film was based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the Color Purple about a period of Black life in the South around mid-1900s. In addition to Winfrey, the movie starred Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Margaret Avery; Quincy Jones co-produced it and also scored the music. It graphically depicted the problems of a young Black girl in that era in the South including poverty, racism, and sexism, and the help she received from two other Black women.
Winfrey played the part of one of the women (Sofia) who gave solace and support to Celie, the role played by Goldberg. Though Sofia had been through some of the same abuse, she chose to show Celie how to fight it–a forced marriage to an abusive husband. Considered a trouble-maker and high-spirited, Sofia ends up in jail. The movie shows a sisterly camaraderie among Black women who shared abusive relationships and how some of them suffer in silence through intimidation in addition to consistent abuse.
Even though Winfrey did not win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she earned critical acclaim and later on went on to produce her own movies including the Great Debaters, Beloved, Women of Brewster Places, Precious and a Broadway musical adaptation of the Color Purple. She has also provided the voice for characters in Charlotte’s Web, Bee Movie and the Princess and the Frog. Winfrey’s empire includes books, magazine, and her flagship product, the Oprah Winfrey Show on television.
In considering the heights that Winfrey has attained, it is important to gauge the depths from which she ascended. Born into poverty to a young single mother in Mississippi and raised in an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, she became an international communication/media juggernaut who, through her early support, was able to assist a young senator become the first African American President of the United States.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG (the Color Purple)
In addition to being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in her debut on the big screen in the Color Purple in 1985, Whoopi Goldberg went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the hit movie Ghost five years later. She is one of the very few actress/actors–and the only Black to have won an award in all four categories. She has also won a Tony Award, Emmy Awards and a Grammy Award.
In the Color Purple, Goldberg played Celie, a submissive Black woman in the South, caught up in an abusive marriage from which she cannot extricate herself. She received help from two other Black women, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), who also had been abused, and Shug (Margaret Avery). Eventually, Celie with the support of her two friends, mustered the strength to leave the abusive relationship and venture on her own opening a small business.
Goldberg won a Tony Award in 2002 for Best Musical: Thoroughly Modern Millie; also in 2002 and 2009 respectively, she won Daytime Emmy Awards for Beyond Tara: the Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel (outstanding special class host); and the View (outstanding talk show co-host). Then in 1997, Goldberg received a special Emmy Award for Comic Relief (benefit special). For Best Comedy Recording, Whoopi Goldberg–Original Broadway Show Recording, she received a Grammy Award in 1985.
Described as a comedienne, an actress, singer/songwriter, political activist, producer and a talk-show host, Goldberg has run the gamut of the entertainment and awards genre. Besides the above-mentioned awards, she has won Golden Globe Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Other films that Goldberg has either starred or co-starred in include Sister Act, Sister Act 2, Made in America, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Fatal Beauty, Rat Race, Clara’s Heart, Sarafina, the Long Walk Home and Ghosts of Mississippi. She provided the voice for one of the characters in the Lion King and was highly acclaimed for her role as the bartender Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
DIANA ROSS (Lady Sings the Blues)
As the lead singer of the Supremes and a part of the Motown sound, Diana Ross established the standard by which the term “diva” became popular to describe acclaimed female singers. Her debut on the big screen, as a movie star, was as earth-shattering as her past performance as a sultry diva. Her debut role as the legendary Billie Holliday in Motown’s Lady Sings the Blues earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1972 and immediately placed her front and center of the Hollywood scene.
In her world of song, Ross had already teamed up with heavyweight singers like Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie, so crossing over to the movies and teaming up with two heavyweights like Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor was not a new phenomenon for her. It seemed a natural progression. Ross had already been tested on the small screen having had a number of television specials that spotlighted her career including TCB and G.I.T. on Broadway and after launching her solo career, she hosted her first television special, Diana.
After Motown relocated to Hollywood and its chairman, Berry Gordy, delved into the movie business. His first movie was a biographical film of Billie Holiday, titled Lady Sings the Blues starring Ross as the jazz icon, Williams and Pryor. She gave a stellar performance and in addition to receiving an Academy Award nomination, she also received a Golden Globe Award nomination as best actress in 1973 which she won. Those were the top two awards in the movie industry. And not escaping from her foundation, the soundtrack album also scored big on the Billboard charts; it eventually became one of Ross’ best-selling albums of all time.
Ross grew up in the Brewster Housing Projects in Detroit, Michigan–where she had moved to at the age of 14–and as the ageless wonder of songs, music and movies, she never looked back. In 1975, she returned to the big screen in Mahogany, followed by the Wiz in 1978. Both films were Motown productions. Film critics claimed that those movies did not rate as high as Lady Sings the Blues, however, a single from the soundtrack of Mahogany did reach the top spot on the pop-hits chart.
Ross continued making musical hits, movies on the big screen and for television.
THE ROAD TO THE ACADEMY AWARD
The road to the Academy Awards for Black actresses was pioneered by Hattie Mc Daniel, the first Black person to win the award as Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With The Wind. Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black woman to receive a nomination for the Academy Award as the Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones in 1954. When Halle Berry won the Academy Award as Best Actress in “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, it had been 68 years since the first Black woman had been honored with an Oscar for the best supporting role. And Mo’nique is the most recent winner of the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in Precious in 2010.