Let’s talk about the Black Actresses of the past decade that put forth Oscar-worthy performances for Best Supporting Actress.
Whenever society does manage to find itself caring about the unheralded Black actress, often the talk is around the “leading lady”. However, there cannot be a leading lady without someone following behind her and supporting her. Thus, the supporting actress is always of significance, and as we all know, the right supporting actress just may outshine the leading lady from time to time–some say Oprah Winfrey may have done just that in 1985 with her role in The Color Purple.
Given the importance of the supporting actress, and coming off the big Best Supporting Actress win for Ariana DeBose’s performance in West Side Story (2021), I thought we’d shine a light on the last decade of black actresses that absolutely killed it in supporting roles.
Enjoy…in chronological order:
Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011): I don’t think Octavia was getting her due until this role. Up until this role, it was an arc in Ugly Betty that might’ve been considered her biggest appearance. But when finally given the chance to shine, she killed it as Minny Jackson, the 33-year old cook in the racist south who famously serves a shit pie to Hilly Holbrook in what may be the best scene in The Help. Octavia took what is usually a simple “best friend-slave-I-need-a-white-savior” role into something that was much more powerful, much more individualistic, and much more relatable–particularly to Black audiences. It’s no wonder why Octavia wasn’t just nominated for Best Supporting Actress but she also took the trophy home that night. Sidenote: She’s also one of the best Black actresses of the past decade.
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave (2013): Speaking of roles that gave birth to a legend, Lupita’s role in 12 Years A Slave as Patsey, a consistently abused and raped slave in the south, was about as second fiddle as roles come. She did not have a ton of time on screen or words to communicate the essence of her character, but with every appearance and every sentence uttered, Lupita conveyed emotions and feelings that no other actor on that set was capable of. Patsey was a vessel for just about every character in this movie, and Lupita, through her delivery, allowed us to feel the feelings of someone who is going through slavery, violence, and dependence. It was a masterful performance, so much so, that she also took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. Of course, you may notice a theme of slavery and indentured servitude being the prerequisite for a Black actress to win such an award.
Viola Davis, Fences (2016): We finally got a Black actress to win a role this decade without having to literally play “the help”! Davis comes through in a masterful performance in Fences, as she plays out the “supporting” and loving wife of Denzel Washington, in a largely family-driven drama. Of course, Davis’s talent can’t be relegated to simply playing second fiddle either, as her character, Rose, is one of the major catalysts in this story, encouraging her husband to build the eponymous “fence”. She is also the one that attempts to hold the family together, demands that it has to separate, and ultimately brings it back together with the leadership and rationale of the most emotionally intelligent character in the movie. For a movie that mostly took place in one setting, and with just three significant characters, it’s Davis’s non-backseat coupling with Denzel that takes this script from a play into a movie for the ages.
Naomi Harris, Moonlight (2016): This is our first non-Oscar winner in the category–after all, you had to figure we’d run out of Black actresses winning Oscars at some point, right? Nevertheless, there is no shame in what Naomi brought to Moonlight as the main character’s very troubled mother. Unlike the other lazy actors in the film who had shared their characters with other actors during this time-shifting movie, Naomi stayed present throughout the movie, shapeshifting with the times, and delivered a performance that while not an Oscar winner, was rightfully recognized by the Academy for a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her role is actually that of a drug-addicted, sometimes prostitute, caregiver who lacks care. It is through the conveying of her own troubles with abuse that we learn more about the main character, her son, and his own battle with his inner desires. Specifically, in one of the last scenes of the movie, Naomi’s character speaks to her son from the bed of a drug treatment center, expressing her love for her son, only to seemingly acknowledge that the love of her son may now be an unrequited one, and we see the hurt with which that hits her. It’s a pain that no mother or parent wants to bear, and yet it is possibly one that so many have to endure due to their own failures as parents.
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures (2016): Yes, 2016 was a big year for Black Actresses in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars. And yes, here we are again, talking about Octavia Spencer crushing it in another role. Here she plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician and human-computer, who learned programming, against the will of many others, and worked at NASA. I can’t imagine it’s easy playing one of the most significant scientists of a generation, especially one that was marginalized and purposefully hidden from the record books. But Spencer does it well–conveying a spirit and tenacity in the character that gave Ms. Vaughan her due.
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water (2017): Yes, more Octavia Spencer, and she is back to playing the help. They wouldn’t let her keep playing scientists on screen! In all seriousness, this was a very beautiful role in an otherwise very crazy movie about a humanoid amphibian. Octavia plays a cleaning lady, who is friends with another cleaning lady (the leading lady). When the other lady tries to help this humanoid amphibian escape, Zelda, being the well-reasoned Black woman that she is, absolutely wants nothing to do with it–but eventually, she gets roped into trying to do the right thing. Admittedly, this was a weird role and a weird movie that oddly enough got a lot of attention and nominations. I’m just thankful that Octavia’s character brought some levity to the situation so we mere mortals could enjoy it.
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound (2017): In a role that surprised us all and essentially kicked off what is now a very serious acting role for the R&B legend, Mary J. pulled in an Oscar nomination as she absolutely crushed her major film acting debut. At the direction of Dee Rees, Mary J. plays a caring motherly figure that helps a struggling Black family hold it together. We honestly didn’t know that Mary J. had the range to show us the multitude of emotions that she did–everything from trauma and insecurity to joy and relief. She stripped down physically too–letting go of many of the “things that make [her] feel beautiful”, allowing us to see her acting form from a place of rawness and vulnerability.
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): And the last nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category over the past decade (with 3 years between this and Ariana DeBose’s win for her 2021 performance!) was Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk. And what a performance it was. She brought the character of Sharon to life as a mother who was out to do everything she possibly could do to correct a wrong. The determination and passion that Regina conveyed in this role were deserving of, and subsequently received, an Oscar nomination and win. As the last Black actress on this list, I think it’s a good chance to read about her win in her own words: “The Academy wasn’t as reflective [then] as it is now. So many women have paved the way. I walk in their light and I am creating my own light, and there will be young women who walk in that light.”
Hopefully, that light continues to shine, as it did for Ariana at the last Oscars, for the many Black Actresses that dawn our screens over the next decade.
And if you’re interested in watching some of the Black actresses likely to take the Oscars by storm in the decade to come, please check out BlackOakTV and all of the amazing shows we have featuring Black women in all their glory!
Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani