26 Famous Firsts by Black Artists in Hollywood History

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Progress in diversity has come slowly in Hollywood. As an industry, movies have evolved from depicting Blacks as subhuman, childlike, or servile to offering films that speak to an authentic African-American experience. Yet greater diversity has come begrudgingly. Along the way, many Black performers and filmmakers have accomplished significant firsts in their journey toward respectability and influence in Hollywood.

To compile a list of famous firsts in Black Hollywood history, 24/7 Tempo consulted such sources as IMDb, an online movie and TV database owned by Amazon; The History Makers; Essence; ETOnline; and the BBC, and referenced data from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by Nash Information Services.

Today’s Black actors and directors stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who endured racist and sexist abuse and kept their eyes on the prize. (Here’s a list of the best movies by Black filmmakers.)

Cinemaphiles and TV historians know that Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar, and TV historians are well aware that “The Cosby Show” was the first predominantly Black sit-com to top the Nielsen ratings (and that the since-disgraced Cosby himself was the first Black actor to have a leading role in a TV series, with “I Spy”). What is lesser known is that Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a full-length movie in 1919; that in 1939, Ethel Waters became the first Black person to star in her own television special; and that in 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

In 2023, two Black actors are up for Oscars – Brian Tyree Henry for Best Supporting Actor in “Causeway” and Angela Bassett – who scored a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Tina Turner in 1992’s “What Love Got to Do With It” – for Best Supporting Actress in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Nonetheless, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which first appeared in 2015 as a protest over lack of diversity in Academy Award nominations, is back because of perceived snubs this year of Black actors and directors for films such as “The Woman King,” “Nope,” and “Till.” (In earlier years, these were the Oscars’ most egregious snubs.)

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