The 74th Academy Awards ceremony (2002)
The 74th Academy Awards ceremony (2002)

It’s an inevitable debate during awards season – who won, who really should have won, and for which role. When it comes to black actors in particular, there’s a longstanding belief that the Academy routinely gets it wrong, snubbing certain Oscar-worthy performances and choosing instead to hand out the trophy for roles that don’t quite cut it.

In anticipation of the Academy Awards ceremony this weekend (February 26), here’s a look back at black actors and actresses specifically who’ve taken home the Oscar, and which other roles they should have won for, if any.


– Sidney Poitier

Won for: Homer Smith, “Lilies of the Field” (1963)

Should have won for: Virgil Tibbs, “In the Heat of the Night” (1967).

Poitier’s role as detective Virgil Tibbs is one of his most memorable, but Poitier was possibly passed over in light of his recent win. “In The Heat of the Night” was also nominated in seven other categories, winning five, including Best Picture.

– Denzel Washington

Won for: Alonzo Harris, “Training Day” (2001)

Should have won for: Malcolm X, “Malcolm X” (1992). Maybe the most obvious entry on this list, as the slain civil rights activist is still considered one of Washington’s most iconic roles. “X” director Spike Lee is remembered for his criticism of the Academy for failing to recognize both Washington and the film, saying, “I’m not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one.”

– Jamie Foxx

Won for: Ray Charles, “Ray” (2004)

This one was on the money as far as Foxx’s performances go. Until Ray in 2004, Foxx’s most acclaimed roles had been supporting turns as Drew “Bundini” Brown in “Ali” (2001) and Willie Beamen in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” (1999). But in the “got it wrong” category, some felt the Best Actor Oscar should have gone to Don Cheadle, who starred in “Hotel Rwanda” that year.

– Forest Whitaker

Won for: Idi Amin, “The Last King of Scotland” (2006)

Looks like the Academy got it right on this one, as there were few complaints about Whitaker’s Best Actor win. With Will Smith nominated alongside him for The Pursuit of Happyness, Whitaker was still the favorite to win for his portrayal of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, for which he also won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.

If there were another role Whitaker should have won for, it might be in Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988), for which he won a Golden Globe instead.


– Halle Berry

Won for: Leticia Musgrove, “Monster’s Ball” (2001)

I’d argue that Berry’s strongest and most memorable work has actually been in television instead of film. Starring roles in biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999) and “Alex Haley’s Queen” (1993) have been some of her most solid dramatic performances to date. For Dandridge, Berry walked away with a Golden Globe, Emmy and an NAACP Image Award.


– Louis Gossett, Jr.

Won for: Sgt. Foley, “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982)

In his seven decade-long career, Sgt. Foley is still perhaps Gossett’s best known feature film role. But with several projects listed on his upcoming slate, the veteran actor’s next iconic role could be yet to come.

– Denzel Washington

Won for: Pvt. Trip, “Glory” (1989)

Should have won for: Take your pick. Arguably, Washington’s Oscar for “Glory” was well deserved, but during his heyday from the late ’80s to mid-90’s, he gave a series of Oscar-caliber performances in hard-hitting dramas like “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), “Philadelphia” (1993), and “Cry Freedom” (1987), for which he also received a nomination.

– Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Won for: Rod Tidwell, “Jerry Maguire” (1996)

Beyond 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood,” which earned director John Singleton nominations for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, “Jerry Maguire” is about as good as it gets for Cuba Gooding, Jr.

– Morgan Freeman

Won for: Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, “Million Dollar Baby” (2004)

Should have won for: Joe Clark, “Lean on Me” (1989)

When Freeman spoke with THR a few years ago, he cited no-nonsense principal Joe Clark as one of a handful of roles that defined his five decade-long career. He was instead nominated for an Oscar in 1989 for his supporting role in “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Regarding his win for “Million Dollar Baby” he said, “It actually kinda felt anticlimactic. I guess you just sort of know you can only get so many nominations before they decide, ‘Oh, why don’t we just give it to him?'”


– Hattie McDaniel

Won for: Mammy, “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Unfortunately, it’s well known that during McDaniel’s time, the few acting opportunities available to blacks were minor roles as servants. By the time McDaniel won the Oscar in 1939, she had played a maid, cook or servant in over 30 films.

– Whoopi Goldberg

Won for: Oda Mae Brown, “Ghost” (1990)

Should have won for: Celie, “The Color Purple” (1985). She was actually nominated in the Best Actress category, an award that film critic Roger Ebert predicted she would win. Instead, the Oscar went to Geraldine Page for “The Trip to Bountiful.” Out of “The Color Purple’s” 11 Academy Award nominations, the film didn’t win any.

– Jennifer Hudson

Won for: Effie White, “Dreamgirls” (2006)

We can’t make a comparison here, since “Dreamgirls” was Hudson’s debut film. There was also much chagrin about the former “American Idol” contestant beating out actresses like “Little Miss Sunshine’s”Notes on a Scandal.” Still, Hudson’s soul singing, soul-stirring performance as girl group member Effie White was strong enough to earn her the Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Image Award, and SAG Award in 2006.

– Mo’Nique

Won for: Mary, “Precious” (2009)

If there was any role that Mo’Nique would win an Oscar for, it was this one. Prior to “Precious” in 2009, she was known primarily for her standup and roles in comedy films like “Soul Plane” (2004) and “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins’ (2008). She also took a hiatus from films, with her first major role since “Precious” being “Blackbird” in 2014.

– Octavia Spencer

Won for: Minny Jackson, “The Help” (2011)

Going out on a limb to say that her best role is yet to come. At the time, “The Help” was decried as another case of “black people can only win awards when they’re playing maids and butlers.” But before winning the Oscar, Spencer spent about 15 years as a character actor in minor film and TV roles, in everything from “Being John Malkovich” to “Big Momma’s House. “Now that she’s been attached to higher profile projects, there’s a solid chance that a leading actress Oscar is in her future.

– Lupita Nyong’o

Won for: Patsey, “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

A win for a raw performance that was expected and many would agree, well-deserved. It was her feature film acting debut and her first win, so, like Hudson, there isn’t any past work/win we can compare it to, except for a role in an Kenyan TV series titled “Shuga.” But with exciting new projects on her slate like “Queen of Katwe” and “Americanah,” both film adaptations of critically-acclaimed novels, more Oscar statuettes are likely in her future.

Now it’s your turn; chime in below in the comments section.

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), will honor the best films of 2016 and will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 26, 2017.