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The Oscars are coming up this weekend, and in a stunning victory for black people everywhere, a whopping two(!) of the acting nominees are black. (More specifically: one is Denzel Washington and the other is a nine-year-old).

So, since racism no longer exists, and black actors are now afforded the same exact professional opportunities as their white colleagues, it’s time to look back on some of the more unlikely performers who’ve opened doors and ruffled feathers in black Hollywood over the years.

1. Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer, 1927)

You’ve likely noticed that Al Jolson doesn’t look like any Black person you’ve ever seen before. That’s because he is, in fact, white. Jolson’s famous film The Jazz Singer, in which he performs the song “Mammy” in blackface, is credited as the first movie where synchronized sound made an appearance. Even during a technological revolution, Hollywood still managed to be racist! Jolson’s performance is emblematic of the ugly legacy black performers are still battling to this day.

2. Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind, 1939)

Speaking of “Mammy,” McDaniel has the honor of being the first black person ever to win an Oscar. Her performance (as a maid named “Mammy”) in Gone With the Wind earned her the Best Supporting Actress title, an award that’s been giving to only three black actresses since (one of whom is Whoopi Goldberg, so yeah).

Props to McDaniel for taking her time coming to the stage to accept her statuette; way to treasure the moment! Oh wait, that happened because she had to walk all the way from the back of the auditorium, where the black attendees were segregated from the whites.

3. Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, 1971)

MVP is a big deal for numerous reasons. His film Sweetback is not only credited with kickstarting the “Blaxploitation” film genre, he also provided one of the first modern examples of a black auteur (Van Peebles wrote, directed, and produced the film).

In a way, he also created the Black action hero. Is there anything this man can’t do?

4. Pam Grier (Coffy, 1973)

From Blaxploitation to Hip Hop and beyond, few actresses have been as influential as Pam Grier. Her hyper-sexual, ass-kicking roles in films like Black Mama, White Mama and Foxy Brown form a template on which many representations of hip-hop womanhood are built (for better or worse). Without her, there’d be no Lil’ Kim, no Trina, no Foxy Brown (!), and no Nikki Minaj.

Grier was tough and unafraid to flaunt her stuff. Basically, she is how we all should be.

5. Keenan Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, 1988)

Keenan is here mainly because he introduced us to the original First Family of Black Hollywood: The Wayanses!

His seemingly endless arsenal of siblings took the industry by storm in the 80s and 90s, flexing their comedic muscle on both television (In Living Color, The Wayans Brothers) and in film (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, White Chicks, Little Man... OK, forget those last two). You’ve got to love those Scary Movie’s though! Wayans also brought us Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez, and Jim Carey, which should earn him a MacArthur Genius grant on its own.

6. Ice Cube (Boyz N the Hood, 1991)

The phrase “Stay in your own lane” was rendered meaningless when Ice Cube stepped away from his rap career to appear as “Doughboy” in John Singleton’s debut feature.

In doing so, he opened the door for any rapper who got the acting bug. The results are decidedly mixed: Tupac, Common, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Method Man, Eminem ... the list goes on. But Boyz does owe much of its success to his exceedingly competent performance. Thanks, Cube!

7. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (The Rundown, 2003)

This spot could’ve just as easily gone to Vin Diesel, that of the super buff, racially-ambiguous but still visibly black(ish) action star with incredible crossover appeal.

Johnson seemed to have cooled off for a minute (The Tooth Fairy, anyone?), but he’s primed to be back with a vengeance in 2013. He appears in five movies this year! “The Rock” represents one of many possible futures in black Hollywood, one in which race is not the determining factor dictating the kind of work an actor gets. Can ya smell what he’s cookin’, people?

Zak Cheney-Rice
Editor, senior writer, The Movement