February 19, 2009 / 11:08 PM / in 9 years

Black actresses make their mark in Oscar race

<p>Actress Viola Davis arrives for the BAFTA/LA 15th annual Awards Season Tea Party in Beverly Hills, California, January 10, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok</p>

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - With Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson vying for the best supporting actress Oscar it is a banner year for black actresses at the Academy Awards.

Despite more than a dozen nominations, only three black actresses, Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, Whoopi Goldberg for “Ghost” in 1990 and Jennifer Hudson in 2006’s “Dreamgirls,” have won the supporting actress award since the first Oscar was handed out in 1929.

If either Davis, who was nominated for her role in “Doubt” or Henson, acknowledged for her performance in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” win, she would only be the fourth.

“It is an exciting year, and wonderful to see two roles that are not stereotypical, not anything that has any controversy around it, just deep, layered performances,” said Angela Burt-Murray the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine ahead of its black women in Hollywood luncheon.

The only other time two black actresses were nominated for best supporting actress in the same year was in 1985 when Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey received nods for their roles in “The Color Purple.” Neither won the Oscar.

“It will be a banner year if someone walks home with the statue. It is long overdue,” said Burt-Murray.

Halle Berry, the first and only black woman to take home the best actress statuette for “Monster’s Ball” in 2001, Henson and Diahann Carroll were honored at the lunch.

A year ago Henson said she wondered what it would be like to be nominated.

“Now, I know. It’s amazing,” she said, adding that Carroll, who was nominated for best actress for her role in 1974 in “Claudine,” is a role model.

“I pay homage to her today,” she added.

BEFORE AND BEHIND THE CAMERA

It’s not only in front of the camera that black women have made great strides. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the hit television show “Grey’s Anatomy” and the spinoff “Private Practice”, is a powerful force in Hollywood.

“Just the idea that here is this African-American woman who has been able to just break the mold of television programing and put together a diverse, compelling and engaging cast that people are willing to tune into every week is very exciting,” said Burt-Murray.

A month after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president, Burt-Murray said she wished she could say that race would not be an issue for actresses going forward in Hollywood.

“People would like to think that with the election of the new president that perhaps that sort of change would trickle into Hollywood, but we will have to wait and see if people are truly going to be judged on their talent,” she said.

“There have been times throughout history where African-American women have delivered great performances and haven’t been acknowledged.”

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