Even before this year’s Academy Awards and its jaw-dropping ending were broadcast, it was a history-making event for Black filmmakers – both onscreen and behind-the-scenes talent: eighteen Black people nominated for awards; Bradford Young, the first African American nominated for Best Cinematography; Joi McMillon, the first Black woman nominated for Best Editing; three Black women (Octavia Spencer, Naomie Harris, Viola Davis) up for Best Supporting Actress.
By the end of the night, history had definitely been made: Barry Jenkins, first African American director to win Best Film (he was also the first African American to score nominations for best director, picture and adapted screenplay in the same year); Moonlight, first all-Black cast film to win Best Picture; Mahershala Ali, an Ahmadi Muslin, became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar; Viola Davis is only the second Black woman (Whoopi Goldberg being the first) who has won a Tony, Emmy and Academy Award.
To get some idea of just how far Black filmmakers (in front of and behind the cameras) have come, check out these three documentaries on the lives and careers of three Black arts/artists from Hollywood’s first Golden Age.
The Nicholas Brothers
The tap-dancing brother duo was famously told by Fred Astaire that their iconic dance number “Jumpin’ Jive,” in the film Stormy Weather, was the best onscreen dance performance he’d ever seen. They were elegant, smoothly acrobatic, groundbreaking performers who went for broke every time out, without ever breaking a sweat. They’re but one example of Black talent that not only equaled but surpassed most of their white Hollywood peers, and in a just world they’d be household names.
Cut from the classic “tragic beauty” cloth, Dandridge was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, regardless of race, and she broke any number of barriers only to have the glass ceiling smashed onto her head. With a bio that includes a grim childhood of sexual abuse, failed marriages (including one to Harold Nicholas – of the Nicholas Brothers – that produced a special-needs daughter,) and a career that never reached its full potential, Dandridge has been both an inspiration and a cautionary tale for Black women for decades now.
By the time Ms. Horne played Glenda the Good Witch, in the 1978 film version of The Wiz, she was already a legend, a survivor of decades of Hollywood and its inability to do justice to her talents as singer or actress. Though she met Eurocentric standards of beauty better than most white women, a skittish Hollywood primarily cast her in glamorous but negligible roles. She carved out a successful career as a singer and high-end supper club act. Born into a politically active family, she was a proud race woman, a fierce fighter in the battle for justice and equality for African Americans who never held her tongue when confronting bigotry.