One of the joys of the mid-fall/early winter season is the amount of quality films that flood our local movie theaters. This is the time of year that Hollywood studios release their heaters; the movies you know will be in contention for an Academy Award. Period pieces about European royal families, biopics about famous musicians from the 60s, indie films focused on crime in major cities—Oscar season gives us nothing but the best. It all leads up to the fateful night in February when our favorite actors and actresses stroll the red carpet, hoping for a chance at movie immortality. Meanwhile, the audience at the ceremony and watching at home wait in breathless anticipation for the best part of the evening: the acceptance speeches. How self-deprecating will Meryl Streep be as she picks up her 37th award for Best Actress? How long will Cate Blanchett’s speech be and why didn’t I know that she was Australian? How is Clint Eastwood still directing films at age 124? When was the last time an Asian person won an Oscar for acting? (Don’t Google that, it will depress you.)
Ah, diversity at the Oscars. It’s a conversation that happens every year, and it’s not going away any time soon. This year’s ceremony brought the “Oscars So White” hashtag, and for the second straight year, there were no people of color nominated in any of the 20 acting categories. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took steps to correct this in the days following the announcement of nominees, inviting a record number of minorities and young people into their ranks. In the coming years, many of us (minus Steve Bannon and most of the senior members of the new White House staff) hope to see Oscar nominees and winners that reflect the full American landscape (more women Best Directors, more minority and LGBT nominations, etc.). In that spirit, I have compiled a list of some of the best acceptance speeches from various black winners of Academy Awards over the years. Let’s raise our glasses and toast these incredible performers. To diversity! To movies! To Three 6 Mafia!
Whoopi Goldberg—1990 Best Supporting Actress, “Ghost”
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar for her role in “Gone with the Wind”. She won Best Supporting Actress that night, and the next black person to win the award was Whoopi 41 years later. There’s an endearing amount of sheer joy when Whoopi hears her name called:
I’m not a lip reader—is that a “Yes! Oh shit!” we’re seeing? If it is, it’s well deserved. This is a historic moment; you can feel the audience emotionally processing what they’ve just witnessed. Just look at Anjelica Huston’s reaction as Whoopi makes her way to the stage:
Try to contain your excitement, Morticia. No need to overdo it. Whoopi references her New York upbringing, and being inspired as a child to get into acting by watching the movies of many of the people in the room that night. A heartfelt speech from someone you can tell truly appreciates the moment.
Prince—1985 Original Song Score, “Purple Rain”
“Purple Rain”, the album and the movie, was a global phenomenon in 1984—by the time Prince won this award in March 1985, this was essentially a victory lap. Fun fact—this award now exists as “Best Original Musical” but it has not been awarded since Prince won it that night. Academy rules are weird, you guys. Still, if there was ever a piece of art to retire this award on, it’s “Purple Rain”. Prince brings his singing/writing partners Wendy and Lisa from his band The Revolution on stage with him to accept the award. I honestly don’t know who has the best outfit here, but truth be told, Wendy Melvoin gets the slight edge. The pink just works for her:
Prince actually looks surprised he won, calling his victory “very unbelievable” during his speech. He keeps it short and sweet, thanking his manager, the director of Purple Rain Albert Magnoli, and God. A restrained appearance from the greatest American musician, who honestly just looks happy to be there.
**NOTE** Prince did not receive any Oscar nominations for the sequel to Purple Rain, “Graffiti Bridge”, in 1990. If you’ve seen that film, you’ll know why, and also—I’m sorry.
Halle Berry—2001 Best Actress, “Monster’s Ball”
Perhaps the most iconic acceptance speech on this list, Halle Berry remains the only African-American to have won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It’s impossible to listen to her speak and not get emotional. She shouts out great black actresses of the past in Dorothy Dandridge (the first black woman nominated for Best Actress, who Berry famously portrayed in a 1999 HBO film), Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll. She then shouts out her contemporaries in Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, and Vivica A. Fox, and says that her win is also for “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” A triumphantly emotional speech, highlighted by the best faces of shock and joy you can hope for:
You’re an American hero, Halle. And we love you.
Three 6 Mafia—2006 Best Original Song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the film “Hustle & Flow”
AND SPEAKING OF AMERICAN HEROES. There have been many important moments in the combined history of music and film; this win for the Memphis rap group ranks near the very top. There are so many wonderful moments here. Queen Latifah presenting the award, and her shocked reaction:
Three 6’s excitement:
Keanu Reeves sitting behind “Hustle & Flow” star Terrence Howard, thinking to himself, “I enjoy rap. I enjoy the Oscars. This is fun.”
Also, DJ Paul exclaiming towards the end of the speech, “George Clooney my favorite, man, he showed me love when I first met him!” This was as genuine as you’ll find any winner of any Academy Award in history. The shortest speech on this list, but certainly one of the most memorable. Over 10 years later, we’re all still celebrating with them.
Lupita Nyong’o—2014 Best Supporting Actress, “12 Years a Slave”
Lupita’s win was a coming out party of sorts—her beauty and fashion sense from that night’s ceremony catapulted her into the American consciousness as a premier style icon. What may have been overlooked from that night was the incredible grace she showed during her acceptance speech. Her role as Patsey, a slave who endured unbelievable mental and physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic slave owner played by Michael Fassbender, drew rave reviews, but she begins her speech by acknowledging the weight of interpreting the incredible sorrow of a woman who actually lived. Patsey was a real person, and Nyong’o says, “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.” The Yale School of Drama grad owns this moment, thanking her costars, family, and friends. She ends her speech on an inspirational note: “When I look down on this golden statue, may it remind me, and every little child, that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Bravo, Lupita. Bravo.
Jamie Foxx—2005 Best Actor, “Ray”
My personal favorite Oscar moment, Foxx’s transformative performance as Ray Charles was the front runner for this award almost as soon as the movie was released. Perhaps forgotten from this night was the fact that Foxx was also up for Best Supporting Actor for “Collateral”, a tense crime thriller set in Los Angeles costarring Tom Cruise and directed by Michael Mann. Foxx lost to Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby”, but I’m sure he was more than happy with Best Actor as a consolation prize. He begins with a callback to his Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy just one month prior, mimicking the call and response section of Charles’ classic song, “What’d I Say”. Director Taylor Hackford, his managers, and his daughter all get thanked in this speech, but it’s the closer that pulls on the heartstrings. Foxx was raised by his grandmother, who died not long before the 2005 Oscar Ceremony. He laments the fact that she couldn’t be there to see his victory in person, but claims, “She still talks to me now, only now she talks to me in my dreams. And I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight because we’ve got a lot to talk about.” An all-time speech for an all-time performance.