Back 2001, Halle Berry became the first and only black woman to win Best Actress in all of Oscar history. It seemed like it was the beginning of history shifting but that didn’t happen. Viola Davis came close in 2011 with The Help but did not win. We here at AwardsDaily fought pretty hard for that one (an understatement) but she would not get her Oscar until she won in Supporting for Fences. But Halle Berry remains the only black lead actress winner in Oscar’s 93 years. But this year, there is an abundance of black actresses who seem poised to get close to a win.
It has just been announced that Netflix has acquired Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised, in which she also stars. That’s one. Then there are the BIG THREE.
How is it that are so lucky in 2020 to have three women playing supernovas in the history of American music, black American music ranging from Jazz to Blues to Soul. Somehow the stars have literally aligned with Viola Davis playing Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” Andra Day playing Billie Holiday, “Lady Day,” and Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.” It’s quite astonishing to have one performance like this headed for the Best Actress race, let alone three.
For both the roles they play and the actresses themselves this represents a victory in overcoming oppressive forces that stood against them. Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin lived through eras of Jim Crow and segregation yet their impact on music remains immeasurable. Blues, Jazz, and Soul, needless to say, sprang from the Deep South and out of the black community that somehow found a way to thrive in a country that did not know what to do with them and mostly did not try. But there was the music. The power of the music and their singing was impossible to deny and forced white America to pay attention. That was at least partly the theme of Green Book, which showed how famous musicians could be invited to venues where they weren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.
True grit and a strong community of support was required for these icons to rise and rise they did. Best Actress is already heating up with Frances McDormand in Nomadland, Kate Winslet in Ammonite, and the recent Venice winner Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman. We know there are more coming down the pike, with Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy, Rashida Jones in On the Rocks, Jessica Chastain in the Eyes of Tammy Faye, Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Kirby, in particular, is being talked up for her work, having just won a major award. We will have to see how that plays out, but it’s worth taking a closer look at these three performances, the icons of Jazz, Blues and Soul.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Also starring Chadwick Boseman
Directed by: George C. Wolf
Written by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
Considered the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey is also known as an early queer pioneer in that she sang openly about preferring women to men. Viola Davis plays Rainey in one of the many movies distributed by Netflix headed for the Oscar race, with what is likely to be, potentially, a frontrunner in the Supporting Actor race, posthumously, for Chadwick Boseman. That will likely help Davis, who has yet to win in lead, towards a nomination. Not having seen the film it’s hard to gauge such a thing but regardless, bringing attention to the icon of blues that was Ma Rainey is important enough on its own.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
Starring Andra Day as Billie Holiday
Also starring Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Suzan-Lori Parks
Follows Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair.
It is hard to imagine whole generations not knowing about Billie Holiday but once they see the movie, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, arriving in theaters February 12 (yes, a lifetime away) they will have an idea of Holiday’s genius as a singer and of her tragic life. Raped at the age of ten, then blamed for being the seducer, she turned to prostitution as a young teen before eventually finding her way to music. Hers is a tragic life, but whose music was infused with her own pain more than anyone else, and in fact, much of that is what the Jazz tradition is all about (as well as Blues and Soul, it must be said).
The life story of legendary R&B singer, Aretha Franklin.
Of the three, Aretha Franklin is by far the most well known and probably most listened to. The Queen of Soul has shaped not just American music but American culture. She was one of the strongest forces of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Though her life was not shaped by tragedy, as Billie Holiday’s was, or in the shadow of the worst era of Jim Crow as Ma Rainey was, Franklin was nonetheless a black woman navigating her enormous power in an industry driven and controlled by men.
To find the right performer for both Billie Holiday and especially Aretha Franklin you had to look for powerhouses. And in both Andra Day and Jennifer Hudson you have exactly that. Both of them have the specific gifts necessary to nail the singing. In particular, for Aretha Franklin that is no easy feat. Hudson has the pipes for it, though, she really does. All they have to do is put a camera on her singing and that’s going to be 90% of it. But she can also act, and is an Oscar winner. She won Supporting for Dreamgirls in 2006.
While Halle Berry’s win in 2001 felt like something revolutionary had taken place, it took time, a hashtag revolution, and doors being kicked wide open to bring us to this point, where we might have three black women up for Best Actress and one of them might win.
That these films were made at all is significant. And though films have been made about Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday (Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, for instance) never before have they been made this way, with each of these three films developed, created, and led by writers and directors of color — to not only get made but to already be, sight unseen, potential Oscar nominees.