In the Footsteps of Hattie McDaniel: Black Oscar Firsts
The men and women who made history at the Academy Awards
On February 29, 1940, "Gone With the Wind" actress Hattie McDaniel — who wowed critics with her performance as maid Mammy in the 1939 film — became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, earning the then-customary plaque (seen above) for Best Supporting Role by an Actress. Despite her historic achievement, McDaniel wasn't even allowed to sit with her cast mates: The 12th annual ceremony was held at a segregated hotel in Hollywood, and McDaniel was forced to sit along a back wall.
Yet, according to "The Hollywood Reporter," her acceptance speech couldn't have been more gracious. "I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future," she said. "I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry."
Nearly 80 years later, McDaniel's story is a reminder of how far the industry has come — and how much work is still left to do. Here, we celebrate the black men and women who have followed in her footsteps and made Oscar history.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFirst Best Actress Nominee: Dorothy Dandridge, 1955The 32-year-old was nominated for her performance in the title role of "Carmen Jones," but lost to Grace Kelly for "The Country Girl." Dandridge would later be immortalized by future Oscar winner Halle Berry in the 1999 TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."Gene Lester/Getty ImagesFirst Best Actor Nominee and Winner: Sidney Poitier, 1959 and 1964The second time was the charm for Poitier, having been nominated for 1958's "The Defiant Ones." His turn in 1963's "Lilies of the Field" was what would clinch the coveted statuette. Nearly 40 years would pass before another black man won Best Actor — that award went to Denzel Washington for "Training Day" in 2002.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFirst Best Original Song Winner: Isaac Hayes, 1972It's "Shaft." Can ya dig it?Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImageFirst Best Original Screenplay Nominee: Suzanne De Passe, 1972De Passe was nominated alongside co-writers Chris Clark and Terence McCloy for the 1971 Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues." De Passe & Co. were beat out by Jeremy Larner for the political dramedy "The Candidate."William Nation/Sygma via Getty ImagesFirst Best Supporting Actor Winner: Louis Gossett Jr., 1983Perhaps the film should be renamed "An Oscar Winner and a Gentleman." Gossett's performance as Sgt. Emil Foley in the 1982 film earned him top honors.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFirst Best Original Song Score Winner: Prince, 1985"Purple Rain" reigned. (It's worth noting the Best Original Song Score category—a confusing designation used by the Academy for only about a dozen years—was retired after Prince's win.)David Hume Kennerly/Getty ImagesFirst Producer Whose Film Was Nominated for Best Picture: Quincy Jones, 1986Jones' drama "The Color Purple" was nominated for a staggering 11 Oscars but would end up losing Best Picture to "Out of Africa." Overall, the composer/producer has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, though he has yet to win one. (He was bestowed with the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1995.)Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImageFirst Best Original Score Winner: Herbie Hancock, 1987The prolific performer and composer won for the 1986 musical drama "Round Midnight."
Vince Bucci/Getty ImagesFirst Best Sound (Later Best Sound Mixing) Winner: Willie D. Burton, 1988Burton has been recognized in this category many times over (he's seen here with his statue for "Dreamgirls" in 2007), but his first win came in 1988 for the Charlie Parker biopic "Bird."Anthony Barboza/Getty ImagesFirst Best Director Nominee: John Singleton, 1992The 24-year-old was nominated for his directorial debut, "Boyz n the Hood." but lost to Jonathan Demme for "The Silence of the Lambs." An African-American has never won in this category.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty ImagesFirst Best Actress Winner: Halle Berry, 2002Forty-seven years after Dandridge's nomination, Berry became the first black woman to win Best Actress for "Monster's Ball." Her tearful acceptance speech still resonates in the #OscarsSoWhite age: "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow."
Michael Caulfield/WireImageFirst Best Documentary Short Subject Winner: Roger Ross Williams, 2010Director Williams (seen here with producer Elinor Burkett) won for the 2009 documentary "Music by Prudence," about 21-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena.Michael Caulfield/WireImageFirst Best Adapted Screenplay Winner: Geoffrey Fletcher, 2010The novel "Push" by Sapphire became "Precious" on the big screen thanks to Fletcher.ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty ImagesFirst Best Documentary Feature Winner: T.J. Martin, 2012The director (seen here flanked by producer Rich Middlemas and co-director Dan Lindsay) won for the 2011 doc "Undefeated," chronicling the struggles of a high school football team in Memphis.
Ian West - PA Images/PA Images via Getty ImagesFirst Producer to Win Best Picture: Steve McQueen, 2014McQueen took home the statue for "12 Years a Slave" (for which he was also nominated for Best Director).FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty ImagesFirst Original Screenplay Winner: Jordan Peele, 2017The "Get Out" director won for his horror flick starring Daniel Kaluuya. "I thought it was impossible, that it would never work, that I could never make this movie," Peele said during his acceptance speech. "This is to all the people who let me raise my voice and let me make this movie... My wife, who supported me through this whole process. My mom, who taught me to love in the face of hate. And to everyone who went and saw this movie!"