A while back, I met with another librarian to program plan for the winter. We tossed around the idea of an Oscar-nominated or winning best picture series. Then I recalled that February is also Black History Month, which led us to another idea: why not combine the two? Why not feature films with African Americans that were nominated for or won Best Picture?

It sounded like a stellar idea in theory. So I busted into Wikipedia and began hunting for names of films, starting with Oscar winners (88 years, so 88 winners). (As a note: I excluded this year’s nominees, as no winners had been announced when I wrote this.) Then I moved into all winning films and nominees; the combined total is 538 film. Thousands of hours of cinema. My standards for a film to make our list weren’t high. I skimmed each film’s page, looking for either an African-American featured on the cover or in the list of primary actors and actresses. Someone listed somewhere. Like I said: low requirements for a film to qualify.

Guess how many I found?

2 winners and 18 nominees. Total.

I did the math and that’s 3.71% of the Oscar nominated Best Picture films that have African-American actors or actresses in lead roles. They are listed below, newest to oldest.


  1. 12 Years a Slave (2014)
  2. In the Heat of the Night (1968)


  1. Selma (2015)
  2. Captain Phillips (2014)
  3. Django Unchained (2013)
  4. The Blind Side (2010)
  5. Million Dollar Baby (2005)
  6. Ray (2005)
  7. Traffic (2001)
  8. Secrets and Lies (1997)
  9. Shawshank Redemption (1995)
  10. Driving Miss Daisy (1990)
  11. The Color Purple (1986)
  12. A Soldier’s Story (1985)
  13. Sounder (1973)
  14. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968)
  15. Lilies of the Field (1964)
  16. To Kill a Mockingbird (1963)
  17. The Defiant Ones (1959)

Our country’s population is 12.3 % African American. And 3.71% of Oscar-nominated films have an African-American person (even one) in a leading role. That’s not even delving into the content and how they are portrayed in these films.

When you look at the Best Actor and Best Actress categories, it’s not any better. 20 times an African American man has been nominated for best actor. However that’s only 13 different men total, as Sidney Poitier and Will Smith were nominated twice, Morgan Freeman was nominated three times, and Denzel Washington was nominated four. And only four of the 20 nominees won. In 88 years. The first man to win was Sidney Poitier in 1963 for his role as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. There have been 10 women nominated in those same 88 years. Only one of them won.; that was Halle Berry in 2001 for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball. Even more sparce is the director category. In 88 years only 3 African Americans have been nominated for best director:

  1. John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood in 1991
  2. Lee Daniels for Precious in 2009
  3. Steve Queen for 12 Years a Slave in 2013

None of them have won.

The only categories with more than four winners over the past 88 years were Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Music, Best Original Song with six wins each.

The good news is that there has been improvement. Eight of those 19 films nominated (or winning) have been in the past 16 years. Our country is beginning to see this disparity between population and cinematic representation and is beginning to nominate films to close that gap. In the 2017 best picture nominees, several films star primarily or entirely African Americans. Can we continue to progress? What about directors? And what about Asian actors and actresses?

We can–and will–improve. Art will continue to lead culture: and you can be a part of it! Use your time and money to make a difference. Go see films that feature African-American or Asian or Hispanic or Middle-Eastern or Indian actors and actress. Or films directed by them. Or in languages different than your own.

If you want to become a film-maker or actor or actress or director: do it. Practice. Create art that speaks. Your art is important.

We have books about art and books about films and books and audiobooks on learning new languages. Stop by one of our desks today and we will help you find them!