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  • Jonathan Stokes

Golden Girls: Hattie, Whoopi, Mo'Nique and Da'Vine

By: Jonathan Stokes


On March 10, 2024, Da’Vine Joy Randolph accepted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Holdovers.” The Oscars are arguably the most prestigious award in Hollywood and Randolph’s win was the victory lap after sweeping through the entire awards season. With 51 nominations and 39 wins under her belt, it’s clear that the name on everybody’s lips ought to be “Da’Vine.”


Da'Vine Joy Randolph with an Oscar by Strauss/Invision/AP


Randolph’s powerhouse performance in “The Holdovers” is just one of the many times she’s showcased her incredible skill on screen. From her earliest appearances on hit television shows like “This Is Us” and “Empire,” Randolph established a reputation for delivering high-quality on-screen performances. The star power emanating from each scene can be credited to a history of playing to the back of the house in stage plays and musicals.


Randolph’s big break came with the 2012 Broadway musical “Ghost: The Musical”, in which she played Oda Mae Brown. Whoopi Goldberg originated the character on screen, and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in 1990.


In an interview on Q with Tom Power, Randolph revealed that her journey to the Broadway stage was a fluke. Her management encouraged her to audition as an understudy for the show. After the original actress fell ill, Randolph took the role and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. 


Fluke or not, Randolph is one of those entertainers who had no real choice in their destiny. She had to be a star. With natural talent refined by classic instruction, Randolph’s charisma could fill a coliseum. It’s the undeniability and obvious star power that makes one of the statements during her Oscars acceptance speech bittersweet.   


While accepting her award, Randolph tearfully said, “I pray to God that I get to do this more than once. Thank you for seeing me.” A sentiment shared by most winners, but especially poignant for Black actresses who so often reach the pinnacle of their careers with a singular acknowledgment from the Academy before falling into obscurity.  

 

For film fans and Hollywood history buffs, the Academy Awards’ relationship with Black performers has been a topic of conversation for decades. From the historic wins by Black actors to the infamous “#OscarsSoWhite” movement and boycott, race and Hollywood’s biggest night are inextricably linked.


Hattie McDaniel by Bettmann/Corbis/NPR


At the 12th Academy Awards ceremony in 1940, history was made when actress Hattie McDaniel accepted the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy, a house servant, in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” This made McDaniel the first Black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award and the first Black actor to take home the gold. While McDaniel’s win for her performance was well-deserved and caused for celebration, her historic win has remained a sentimental marker of progress in the film industry.  

 

Aside from the film’s epic scale and impact, McDaniel’s role as a house servant highlights the lens through which Hollywood saw and showcased Black people. Though McDaniel defended her choice of roles, the optics of the first Black Oscar winner being an actress portraying a stereotype never sat well with Black audiences. 

 

Due to segregation laws, McDaniel couldn’t attend her film’s premiere in Atlanta, GA. Even at the Oscars ceremony, she was made to sit at a segregated table instead of with the rest of her cast. After her win, McDaniel spent the next decade playing maids. She died impoverished, and her entire estate, including her Oscar, was sold to pay off debts. Her wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery was also denied, as they had a whites-only policy. McDaniel’s story is not unlike the stories of other Black entertainers who have “made it” in the industry.  


A similar fate befell actress Dorothy Dandridge, the first Black actress nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Dandridge made a splash as the titular seductress in 1954’s “Carmen Jones,” though her historic nomination did little for her career. After her year of celebration, Dandridge struggled to find substantive leading roles. After years of professional and personal struggles, Dandridge died at age 42 of an apparent overdose with $2.14 in her bank account

 

The Academy wouldn’t see another Black actress nominated for Best Actress for another 18 years, and no wins would come until 47 years later when Halle Berry took home the honors for her controversial role in “Monster’s Ball.” Today, Berry remains the only Black woman to take home the award. 

 

The Best Supporting Actress category fares much better for Black actresses. 10 Black women have won the award in the Academy’s 96 years—albeit for subservient, often stereotypical roles. Even Randolph’s win was for a character who manages the cafeteria for a wealthy boarding school and serves as yet another “magical negro” that ultimately exists to advance the character arc for the white leads. Most wins in the category are described as empowering as the character typically overcomes societal struggles, though the films rewarded are often period pieces that put distance between the character’s reality and our own. Movies like “The Help” and “Hidden Figures” posture themselves as inspirational stories of triumph for Black characters while fully leaning into a white savior narrative, creating a dissonance between the outward intent and internal impact of the films’ messages. While major strides have been made to advance how Black characters are written and portrayed on screen, the awards’ voting bodies tend to celebrate familiar, harmful tropes.  


Mo'Nique with an Oscar by ABC


In one of the most controversial movies, characters and Oscar winners all come from 2009’s “Precious.” It is a story about a Black teenage girl who lives in extreme poverty, experiences all kinds of traumas and becomes a teen mom after an incestuous sexual assault. The film made waves, resulting in a Best Leading Actress nomination for its star, Gabourey Sidibe, and a Best Supporting Actress win for comedian-turned-dramatic-actress Mo’Nique.  

 

Mo’Nique’s acceptance speech was layered with subtext, as her limited promotion of the film outside of her contractual obligations had made its way to the press, sparking a public feud with the film’s director, Lee Daniels, and its producers, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. She began her speech by thanking the Academy for rewarding their performance over politics. Then, she evoked the award’s first Black winner, Hattie McDaniel, for opening the door for actresses like her. Ending the speech, foreshadowing what was to come, she thanked her husband for encouraging her to do what’s right over what’s popular. Due to bad word of mouth from the Hollywood heavyweights involved in the film’s production, Mo’Nique’s momentum came to a screeching halt. In a recent interview, she revealed she had to resort to borrowing money from friends in the industry to stay afloat. Since her Oscar win, Mo’Nique has only been in five films.  


In late 2023, similar headlines about mistreatment within the industry made the rounds as Taraji P. Henson shared her frustration with low pay and poor on-set conditions while filming the musical movie “The Color Purple,” a retelling of the Alice Walker story produced by Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey.  

 

Henson is a popular force within Black entertainment and has made a name for herself across multiple platforms. She has been successful in television, as she has performed on the Oscars stage in 2006 and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2009. Despite consistently working since 1998 and often starring in films with wide releases and awards campaigns, she has struggled to maintain a salary that matches her resume. She mentioned in a recent interview that the last base salary increase she received was in 2018.  

 

If an actress is lucky enough to continue working, they may be able to maintain a steady income, though the pay gap will most likely be glaringly offensive. Others might be able to maintain a level of acclaim that after many years of high-quality work and many awards snubs, may result in accolades. Then, there are outliers like Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis and Jennifer Hudson, all of whom are EGOT winners who have managed to keep their career momentum going after their Oscar wins.  

 

History tells us that extremely talented Black actresses get chewed up and spit out by the machine, regardless of circumstance, privilege or project. It’s because of the bravery of women like Mo’Nique and Taraji, who speak truth to power, that changes are being made within the industry and the Academy. Just as Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge opened the door for Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry to pave the way, we must hope that rising stars like Dominique Fishback, Nicole Beharie and Zendaya have their roads lit by marquees with the names Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. 

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