Dare to Love – NPR Spotlights Black Actresses

Dorothy Dandridge is a timeless beauty who epitomizes grace, style, and class even today.   Apart from her noted physical charms, Dandridge was an incredible actress—one with the utmost dedication to her craft.  Sadly, Hollywood failed to offer her the quality roles that would allow her to fully showcase her talent.  Apart from the occasional roles as a domestic servants, a demure school teacher or wife, Dandridge was typically cast as a wanton exotic vixen.  Her most well-known roles were highly sexualized and she was often portrayed as an object of white male desire.   She expressed her thoughts on these limitations stating: 

I consider myself an actress, and I have always been a confident one. I interpret a role to the best of my ability, and more often than not, and more often than I’d like, the role calls for a creature of abandon whose desires are stronger than their sense of morality.”
-Dorothy Dandridge

NPR’s Tell Me More featured a profile of Dandridge, as part of their Divas on Screen series.  In addition to Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry will be profiled throughout the week.   The series is no doubt timed in anticipation of Mo’Nique’s wildly predicted Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her work in the film Precious.  Looking at the notable roles of each of these women  provides interesting insight into the way Hollywood has depicted Black women on-screen as well as showcased and awarded the talent of Black actresses. 

Dandridge earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1954, for her role as Carmen.  She was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award nomination in this category.  Fast forward decades later, you will recall that Halle Berry portrayed Dandridge in the biopic of her life—a role for which the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded her a Best Actress Golden Globe. 

Almost 50 years after Dandridge was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, Berry would go in to become the first and only African-American woman to win an Best Actress Academy Award for her role in the film Monster’s Ball. There has been much critique of the role which earned Berry the Oscar: its gratuitous sexualization of its lead and negative portrayal of African-American life being two that continue to resound today. 

Pam Grier’s kick-ass blaxploitation roles [See Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Sheba Baby] were also highly sexualized, but arguably illustrated Black female agency and power.  Grier remains one a few African-American actresses to have received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress; Mo’Nique won the award this year.

Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey were both nominated for their roles in The Color Purple—for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.  Goldberg would later win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as a pseudo-psychic con woman in the film Ghost.  Oprah has not—to my knowledge—won any acting awards; I–for one–wonder why she is even being included in this acting series.  I think Alfre Woodard or Angela Bassett may have been more appropriate selections, as they are by trade actresses and not soon to be retired talk show host.  Nevertheless, Oprah is a Hollywood powerbroker, who has put her juice behind Precious, among other films.

With the Oscar 82nd Annual Academy Awards only a few days away (March 7th, 2010) are you predicting a win for Mo’Nique?   Do you have any concerns on the negative aspects of the role she is being lauded for?  Or do you feel that the film Precious captures realities of Black life–while largely outside of the margins of the majority experience–should be told? Could Gabourey Sidibe upset Sandra Bullock for Best Actress for her role as the title character?



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