​fighting the power at the academy awards: a video history

These powerful Academy Awards speeches have called for social justice.

by Laura Vogel
27 February 2016, 9:55pm

Berry was the first African-American woman to win a best actress award, in 2002. German Marin via Flickr.

Tomorrow night is the biggest event in the Hollywood calendar, the celebration of the 88th Academy Awards. And, as the #OscarsSoWhite movement has helped to publicize, there is not one person of color nominated in any of the acting categories this year. Here, we revisit powerful speeches given by African-Americans who have won awards, as well as other performers who called attention to injustices in their acceptance speeches.

The very first African-American to win an Academy Award — a record she would hold for a unconscionably long time — was Hattie McDaniel, who won for best supporting actress in 1940. In Gone With the Wind, released in 1939, McDaniel played a cartoonishly written character, Mammy, who was basically the servant with a heart of gold. McDaniel was presented her award by long-forgotten actress Fay Bainter, who, to her credit, did acknowledge the importance of McDaniel's win, saying, "[This award] opens the doors...and enables us to embrace the whole of America, an America that almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who give of their best, regardless of race, creed, or color."

In her brief acceptance speech, McDaniel refers to her blackness in a nearly self-deprecating way — which is not too surprising given the era — saying, "I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion-picture industry."

In 1964, Sidney Poitier won the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field, and was very emotional in his short speech, not mentioning color at all explicitly, but acknowledging that it was "a long journey to this moment." 

Whoopi Goldberg landed the statuette in 1991 for best supporting actress for her role in Ghost. Goldberg announced that she'd been pining for an Academy Award since childhood, and said, "I come from New York. As a little kid I lived in the projects, and you're the people I watched. You're the people that made me want to be an actor. I am so proud to be here, and I am so proud to be an actor."

Cuba Gooding, Jr., can be found in any best-of list for Academy Award acceptance speeches. In 1997, he energetically and enthusiastically accepted the award for best supporting actor in Jerry Maguire. He thanked God for "putting me through what you put me through," which was his only acknowledgement of any tough times or challenges. He then continued to speak long after the your-time-is-up-music began to play, screaming "I love you!" to tens of people.

In 2002, Denzel Washington was awarded the best actor Oscar for Training Day. He acknowledged Sidney Poitier in the audience, who had just been given a lifetime achievement award, "I'll always be following in your footsteps, sir, there is nothing I would rather do." Washington also gave props to "a brilliant young African-American filmmaker Anton Fuqua," who directed Training Day.

Halle Berry's exceptional speech at the 2002 Oscars — where she was awarded the prize for best actress for Monster's Ball — is one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Academy Awards. Berry was the first African-American to win a best-actress statuette. Weeping openly, Berry said, "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, it's for the women who stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because, tonight, this door has been opened!" As i-D has reported, Berry has recently weighed in on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

In 2004, Jamie Foxx won the award for best actor for Ray, the Ray Charles biopic. He gave props to Sidney Poitier for mentoring him, and, in thanking his managers, Jamie King and Marcus King, said, "Let's live this African-American dream, it's beautiful!"

Morgan Freeman nabbed the best supporting actor Oscar in 2005 for his role in Million Dollar Baby. His speech was succinct, simply thanking his director Clint Eastwood, co-star Hillary Swank, and, looking heavenward, he expressed his gratitude to God.

In 2006, Three 6 Mafia won the award for best original song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from the movie Hustle & Flow. Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman, and Paul Beauregard accepted, thanking the Academy, their moms, Jesus, and Ludacris.

Jennifer Hudson won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2007 for Dreamgirls. She dedicated her award to her late grandmother, saying, "She was my biggest inspiration for everything. She was a singer, and she had the passion for it but, never had the chance, and that's the thing that pushed me forward."

For a very tough role in Precious, Mo'Nique was given the best supporting actress award in 2010, and made it very clear that she saw how rare it was that the film was even made. "First, I would like to thank the Academy, for showing that it can be about the performance, and not the politics." She went on to express her gratitude to African-Americans who had helped her in the past and in the present, "I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to. Tyler Perry and Oprah: Because you touched it, the whole world saw it."

In 2011, Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for The Help, a period drama set in the South in 1963, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In her far-too-short speech, she tearfully thanked her "Alabama family," the state of Alabama, and her "Help family."

Lupita Nyong'o won best supporting actress for the powerful and visceral film 12 Years a Slave, in 2014. "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else's," she said. "I want to salute the spirit of Patsy [her character] for her guidance.... May this statue ever remind me, and every little child, that no matter where you come from, your dreams are valid."

In 2015, John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn won the Oscar for best original song, "Glory," from the movie Selma. They gave one of the most moving and politically aware speeches, talking of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, that Dr. Martin Luther King and his fellow civil rights activists were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas on what came to be called Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965. Stephens said of a recent trip to perform the song there, "Once, it was a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status."

Also worth celebrating are those performers who used the spotlight of winning an Academy Award to shine the light on injustices around the world.

Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather: In 1973, Brando refused to accept his best actor award for The Godfather. Instead, he sent the Native American Littlefeather in his stead. Though the crowd greeted her with boos, she continued on and made a bold speech about Hollywood's representation and treatment of Native Americans.

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins: In 1993, the then-couple presented the best film-editing award Joel Cox for Unforgiven. In their speech, they call attention to the plight of Haitian HIV victims in Cuba, and asked authorities to accept the refugees; reportedly, Academy Award organizers said they would not be invited back.
Hilary Swank: In 2000, Swank won the Oscar for best actress for Boys Don't Cry. Her speech, about her groundbreaking role as a transgender teen, includes a heartfelt thanks to her team, including Chlöe Sevigny. "We have come a long way... This movie is so important, and everyone put their heart and soul into it." She also gave props to the real-life person she portrayed: "I want to thank Brandon Teena, his legacy lives on through our movie, to remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but we actually celebrate our diversity."
John Irving: In 2000, the writer won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules. As the film was about orphaned children and abortion, he used his Oscar spotlight to thank Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League.

Patricia Arquette: Last year, at the 2015 Academy Awards, Arquette won for best supporting actress for Boyhood. Her galvanizing speech about wage equality for women sparked a national conversation on the critical subject.


Text Laura Vogel
Image German Marin via Flickr

Academy Awards
Three 6 Mafia
Jennifer Hudson
Denzel Washington
Marlon Brando
Morgan Freeman
Susan Sarandon
patricia arquette
halle berry
John Irving
Cuba Gooding Jr
Lupita Nyong’o
whoopie goldberg
sacheen littlefeather
octavia spencer
think piece
hattie mcdaniel
hilary swank
sidney poitier