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Black American Firsts in Film and Theatre

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In 2010, Geoffrey Fletcher was the first black writer to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Precious,” based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire. Four years later, John Ridley became the second black writer to receive this award for his adaptation of “12 Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup.
Daytime Television Host
In 1986 Oprah pioneered the field of daytime television when she became the first black woman to have her own talk show. In 1998 she won the Daytime Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement award for her extensive contributions to the field of media. 
At the 69th Emmy Awards on Sunday, writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe, who plays Denise in the Netflix series, ‘Master Of None’, won for penning the series’ acclaimed coming-out episode “Thanksgiving.”
Nyong'o won one of 12 Years a Slave's three Oscars in 2014, taking home the best supporting actress prize for her role as Patsey. Nyong'o beat Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and June Squibb (Nebraska). She began by thanking her character and the real Solomon Northup. "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's," she said. "And so I want to salute the spirit of "Patsey" for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own." And she ended her speech with a message, "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you're from your dreams are valid."
 Davis is the first actress in the 67 year history of the Emmy’s to ever win the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. In her acceptance speech the “How To Get Away With Murder” star quoted Harriet Tubman and then thanked other black actresses in leading roles. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply not there,” Davis said.
Viola Davis is the black actress with the most nominations for Oscar. She became known for Law & Order TV series (1999) and for the films Kate & Leopold (2001) and Far From Heaven (2002). She won Tony award for Best Supporting Actress (King Hedley II, 2001), and received her first Oscar nomination for Doubt (2008). She won the Academy statue for Best Supporting Actress in 2017 for Denzel Washington’s drama Fences, for which she also conquered the Golden Globe.

"There's one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered, and that's the graveyard." she began. "People ask me all the time, 'What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, 'Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost.' I became an artist, and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life."

She thanked her director and co-star Denzel Washington, her husband and daughter and late Fences playwright August Wilson, "who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people," Davis said.

Morgan Freeman won his first Oscar after receiving his fourth nomination. The veteran actor won the best supporting actor prize for his role as Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris in Million Dollar Baby, beating out Alan Alda (The Aviator), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Jamie Foxx (Collateral) and Clive Owen (Closer). Accepting the statuette from Renee Zellweger, Freeman thanked "everybody and anybody who ever had anything at all to do with the making of this picture," including director Clint Eastwood and co-star Hilary Swank. "This was a labor of love," Freeman added.
American actress Gloria Hendry played Rosie Carver, the first black Bond Girl, alongside British actor Roger Moore as secret agent James Bond in 1973‘s “Live and Let Die.” Since then there have been other black Bond Girls such as Grace Jones as May Day in 1985‘s “A View To A Kill” and Halle Berry as Jinx Johnson in 2002‘s “Die Another Day.”

At just 25, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson won the best supporting actress Oscar for her debut film role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Hudson beat out Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and two Babel castmembers, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. Hudson also seemed overwhelmed by the honor, remarking after she accepted the statuette from presenter George Clooney, "I cannot believe this. Look what God can do
I didn't think I was going to win but, wow."

Hudson also paid tribute to her grandmother, wishing she had been there to see her win and saying, "She was my biggest inspiration for everything because she was a singer, and she had the passion for it but she never had the chance, and that was the thing that pushed me forward to continue." The grateful star thanked director Bill Condon and the film's cast as well as her Broadway predecessor Jennifer Holliday.

Disney’s Princess Tiana
Anika Noni Rose is the proud voice behind Princess Tiana who is the first, and thus far only, black member of the highly successful Disney Princess franchise. Rose’s landmark performance in “The Princess and the Frog” was an important representation of a black woman in a lead role in an iconic children’s movie.
The first black star of scenic arts, Josephine Baker is also known as The Black Venus, The Black Pearl or Creole Goddess. Born in the U.S., she was discovered at the age of fifteen, while she was dancing on the corner of the street where she lived, in St. Louis. After a brief passage through vaudeville revue, she went to New York and made her debut on Broadway. Famous for the exoticism of her performances, which combined comedy and eroticism, she starred successful musicals in European cinema, like Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935).
 First Individual Black Host Of The Oscars
Whoopi Goldberg came to stardom in 1985 in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for Best Actress Oscar. She won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as the funny Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990).
 While Whoopi Goldberg may spend her current days hosting The View, the talented actress has much more to add to her résumé than that. Acting in over 150 films, Goldberg became the first African-American (and only to date) to have won an Emmy (2002), Grammy (1985), Oscar (1990), and Tony Award (2002) (EGOT). Only 12 people total have been able to accomplish this, with the latest achievement being listed in 2014.
 The Oscars are as much about the host as they are about the awards. In the Academy Awards’ 87 year history there have been 75 celebrity hosts, but only five have been black. Whoopi Goldberg would be the first black person to host the awards without a co-host in 1994, and Chris Rock the second in 2005. Other black celebrities that co-hosted in the past include Sammy Davis Jr. in 1972, Diana Ross in 1974, and Richard Pryor in 1977.

Starring as Alexander “Scotty” Scott, Bill Cosby made history as the first Black actor to have a leading role in a television series with ‘I Spy’. The one-hour drama adventure series, which was Cosby’s first television role, ran for three seasons on NBC and earned him three Primetime Emmy Awards from 1966 to 1968.

Twelve Years a Slave director Steve McQueen may have lost the best director award to Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron but he became the first black producer to win best picture when his film won the Oscars' top prize. The film emerged victorious from a packed best picture category that featured American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.

McQueen joined fellow producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas in accepting the award, with Pitt quickly turning the microphone over to the director. In his speech, McQueen brought the message of the film's real-life protagonist, Solomon Northup, to the present day, saying "Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today."

The “black Marilyn Monroe” became famous in 1954, in the title-role of Carmen Jones, Hollywood adaptation from Georges Bizet’s opera made only with black actors. Dandridge was the first black actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Grace Kelly. She was also the first black woman to appear on a Life magazine cover. In 1960 she won the Golden Globe for the musical Porgy and Bess.

Jamie Foxx was singing a happy tune after he won the best actor Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in Ray. The winner performed a little Ray Charles with the audience after he beat out Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby). Foxx name-checked Winfrey and Berry and, like Washington before him, invoked Poitier, whom he said Winfrey allowed him to meet. Mimicking Poitier's voice, Foxx recalled him saying, "I saw you once. And I looked in your eyes and there was a connection 
 I give to you responsibility."

As himself, Foxx continued: "So I'm taking that responsibility tonight. And thank you, Sidney." He also paid tribute to his late grandmother, whom he called his "first acting teacher."

"She still talks to me now; only now she talks to me in my dreams," Foxx said. "And I can't wait to go to sleep tonight because we got a lot to talk about."           
The first black winner for best original score, Herbie Hancock, won for his work on 'Round Midnight. He beat the scores for Aliens (James Horner), Hoosiers (Jerry Goldsmith), The Mission (Ennio Morricone) and Leonard Rosenman (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Accepting the award from Bette Midler, Hancock indicated that perhaps preparing a speech ahead of time, as he was asked to do, but hadn't done before, was good luck. And he paid tribute to the jazz greats that paved the way for him. "In accepting this award I salute the same unsung heroes that you so boldly have chosen to applaud," he said. "Some are with us today and some are not. Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz. From their suffering and pain we can learn that life is the subject, the story that music so eloquently speaks of, and it is not the other way around. We as individuals must develop our lives to the fullest, to strengthen and deepen the story that others can be inspired by life's song
Praise has been long overdue for Bud Powell, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many, many others. Along with you, I thank them. Along with them, I thank you."
 At the age of 24 in 1992, John Singleton became the youngest person and first black director to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for “Boyz N The Hood.” There has never been a black director to receive an Academy award in this category, and thus far only two other people have been nominated: Lee Daniels in 2009 for “Precious“ and Steve McQueen in 2013 for “12 Years a Slave.”
First to Win an Honorary Academy Award
Actor James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award in 1948 for his depiction of Uncle Remus in the Disney film, Song of the South (1946). Baskett is best known for this role, singing the song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

In 1940, actress and performer Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in the film, Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel made history that evening as she became the first Black American to win an Academy Award.

McDaniel worked as a singer, songwriter, comedian, and actress and was well-known as she was the first Black American woman to sing on the radio in the United States. She appeared in more than 300 films.

McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Kansas to formerly enslaved parents. She died on October 26, 1952, in California.

Roger Ross Williams became the first black director to win the Oscar for best documentary short subject for Music by Prudence, sharing the award with Elinor Burkett. Music by Prudence beat China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant and Rabbit a la Berlin.
Spencer called her Oscar "the hottest guy in the room" after she accepted the statuette from Christian Bale at the 2012 ceremony. Winning best supporting actress for her role as Minny Jackson in The Help, Spencer beat out Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) and her Help co-star Jessica Chastain. She thanked those involved with making the movie, including then-DreamWorks executives Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider for "changing my life."

What a feeling, indeed! Irene Cara won the best original song Oscar for "Flashdance
What a Feeling" from Flashdance, sharing the award with Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey. The composition beat out fellow Flashdance track "Maniac," "Over You" from Tender Mercies and two songs from Yentl, "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" and "The Way He Makes Me Feel."
The "untraditional," seven-and-a-half-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America capped off its impressive awards-season run by taking home the Oscar for best documentary feature. Accepting the award alongside producer Caroline Waterlow, producer and director Ezra Edelman, whose mother is African-American, dedicated the award to Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, whom Simpson was accused (and later acquitted) of murdering. "This is for them and their families," he said. "It is also for others — the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence and criminal injustice. This is their story, as well as Ron and Nicole's. I'm honored to accept this award on all of their behalves." In addition to looking back at the "trial of the century," Made in America takes a comprehensive look at Simpson's rise and fall through the intersection of race and celebrity.
Described by Orson Welles as “the most exciting woman in the universe”, Eartha Kitt began her career in 1943, on Broadway. As singer, she was recognized for her unique style and personality, and released the hits C’est si bon and Santa Baby. She starred 20th Century Fox and Paramount musicals, like New Faces (1952) and St. Louis Blues (1958). During the late 60’s, she became famous for playing Cat Woman in Batman series.

Prince took home an Oscar for Best Original Score, an award that requires writing five songs or more for a film, at the 57th Academy Awards in 1985 for the movie “Purple Rain.”

First Black Film Director

Oscar Micheaux became the first Black American to produce a full-length feature film when The Homesteader premiered at movie houses in 1919.

The following year, Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. 

For the next 30 years, Micheaux produced and directed films that challenged Jim Crow Era society.

In 1951, he landed a role in "Pool of London," becoming the first black actor to earn a significant role in an English film.
 After that, he made more than 70 motion pictures and has not stopped working. He is of the Bahá’í Faith, which means that alcohol is not allowed. Sadly, Cameron died on 3 July 2020, in the UK, aged 102.
Ruth de Souza was the first black actress to go up on the stage of the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, with Eugene O’Neill’s play Emperor Jones. She studied in Harvard and, back to Brazil in 1948, debuted on the film Terra Violenta. In 1953 she starred Sinhá Moça, produced at Vera Cruz studios and leaded by actors Anselmo Duarte and Eliane Lage. Sinhá Moça gave to Ruth de Souza the nomination for Best Actress award at Venice Film Festival. This was the first time a Brazilian actress was nominated to an international award.

During the first year of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, African-American musicians Common and John Legend took home the best original song Oscar for "Glory" from Selma. "Glory" beat "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie, "Grateful" from Beyond the Lights, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from Glen Campbell
I'll Be Me and "Lost Stars" from Begin Again. During their speech, Common recalled how the pair had recently performed the song on the same bridge that Martin Luther King and civil-rights activists marched on 50 years ago and talked about the enduring symbolism of that structure.

Legend, meanwhile, brought the themes of the film into the present day. "Nina Simone said it's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now," he said. "We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you."

With their best adapted screenplay win, Moonlight writers Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (story) joined a short list of African-American winners in the category, including Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave). Moonlight's script beat adapted screenplays from Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures and Lion. Addressing the Oscars' large audience around the world, Jenkins said, "All you people out there who feel like there's no mirror out there, that your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back. The ACLU has your back. We have your back and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you."

McCraney added, "This goes out to all of those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming [people] who don't see themselves. We're trying to show them you and us. ... This is for you." Moonlight would go on to win best picture but the top prize went to producers Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.

 Oscar Nominee For Best Writing (Original Screenplay)
In 1972 de Passe received her historic nomination for “Lady Sings The Blues” starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. de Passe is one of three other black writers to be nominated the others are Spike Lee for 1989’s “Do The Right Thing” and John Singleton for 1991’s “Boyz N The Hood.” 
 1981, Emmy For Outstanding Lead Actress In a Comedy Series
Sanford’s iconic performance as Louise “Weezy” Jefferson on the “Jeffersons” made her the first, and so far only, black woman to win an Emmy in this category. Out of 253 total nominations for this award, only three other black actresses have ever been nominated: Diahann Carroll, Nell Carter, and Phylicia Rashad—the last being in 1986.

First Black Woman to Direct and Produce a Full Length Film


In 1992 Daughters of the Dust was released and Julie Dash became the first Black woman to direct and produce a full-length film.

In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In 1976, Dash made her directorial debut with the film Working Models of Success. The following year, she directed and produced the award-winning Four Women, based on the song by Nina Simone.

Throughout her career, Dash has directed music videos and made for television movies including The Rosa Parks Story. 

In 1950, actress Juanita Hall won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Bloody Mary in the stage version of South Pacific. This success made Hall the first Black American to win a Tony Award.

Juanita Hall’s work as a musical theatre and film actress is well regarded. She is best known for her portrayal of Bloody Mary and Auntie Liang in the stage and screen versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals South Pacific and Flower Drum Song.

Hall was born on November 6, 1901, in New Jersey. She died on February 28, 1968, in New York.

If you’re not familiar with her name, actress and singer Ethel Waters is someone you should do a little research on. Though she got her start in the 1920s singing blues, it was her 1962 Emmy nomination that helped her make history. Along with becoming the first Black woman to ever be nominated for the award, Waters — contrary to popular belief — became the first African-American to star in her own television show, ‘The Ethel Waters Show’, in 1939.
Twelve Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley won one of the film's three awards at the 2014 Oscars, taking home the best adapted screenplay prize for transforming Solomon Northup's story into the acclaimed film. Ridley's work beat the adapted screenplays from Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Denzel Washington is the only African-American to take home multiple acting Oscars, winning in 1990 for his supporting role as Pvt. Trip in Glory and in 2002 for his lead role in Training Day — a landmark night for Oscar diversity, with Halle Berry also winning the best actress prize for her work in Monster's Ball.

In 1990, Washington beat out Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Marlon Brando (A Dry White Season) and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors). Accepting his award from Geena Davis at the Oscars' longtime home of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Washington seemed relieved he was able to use the notes he'd prepared and that his son, who said he was going to make him an Oscar out of clay, now has the real thing to work off of.

"Now I got the model for him," Washington said. He also paid tribute to the black Civil War soldiers that the film portrays, saying they "helped make this country free."

Stevie Wonder won best original song for "I Just Called To Say I Love You" from The Woman in Red, beating out Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" from the film of the same name, Ray Parker Jr's "Ghostbusters," from the film of the same name and two Footloose songs, the title track and "Let's Hear It For The Boy." Wonder seemed in disbelief as he accepted the award, recalling how the moment was a real manifestation of his dreams. "All through Europe I had dreams—and I would always wake up—that I was at an awards show and the nominees were coming up, and they'd say this song and this song, and the winner is...! And I would wake up," Wonder said. "But I never thought that this would happen."

BET

 First Black Owned TV Network
In 1979 Robert L. Johnson started Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first black owned TV network and media empire. Although Viacom bought BET, in 2000 for more than $2 billion, Johnson still remained as chairman and chief executive of BET until 2005 when he gave the position to Debra Lee.

First Major Film Director


Gordon Parks' work as a photographer made him famous, but he is also the first Black director to direct a full-length feature film. 

Parks began working as a film consultant for several Hollywood productions in the 1950s. He was also commissioned by National Educational Television to direct a series of documentaries focused on Black American life in urban environments.

By 1969, Parks adapted his autobiography, The Learning Tree into a film. But he did not stop there. 

Throughout the 1970s, Parks directed films such as Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops and Leadbelly.

Parks also directed Solomon Northup's Odyssey in 1984, based on the narrative "Twelve Years a Slave." 

Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan. He died in 2006. 

1983, Academy Award For Best Actor In A Supporting Role
 Gossett received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Award for his acting talents in “Officer and a Gentleman,” which made him the first black actor to do so. He’s spoken about the lack of acting opportunities he’s had as a black actor even after his historic win. In 2013 he told The Root, “I never got a million dollars for any movie I did in 60 years.” Since his win there have been three other black actors to win an Oscar in this category, Denzel Washington in 1990 for Glory, Cuba Gooding Jr. in 1997 for Jerry Maguire, and Morgan Freeman in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby.
Considered one of the greatest sex symbols from 1970’s, Pam Grier became the face of ‘blaxpoitation’, a genre of action films made by and for black people. Her main successes were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). After 70’s the actress lived a period of obscurity, until being rescued by Quentin Tarantino, who invited her to lead Jackie Brown (1997) — for which she won the Golden Globe. According to Tarantino, Pam Grier is “the first female star of action films.”
In 2015, Uzo Aduba was the first black actress, and only actor besides Ed Asner, to win an Emmy in both the comedy and drama categories for a single role for her performance on “Orange Is The New Black.”
The Precious actress beat out Penelope Cruz (Nine), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) and two Up in the Air actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, when she won best supporting actress, accepting the trophy from presenter Robin Williams. During her speech, Mo'Nique paid tribute to McDaniel, thanking her "for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to."
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