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In more diverse Oscars year, African-American actress Viola Davis sets record

Viola Davis is the first-ever African-American actress to get three nominations at the Oscars. What history tells us about diversity in Hollywood. 

Actress Viola Davis arrives at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California on Jan. 25, 2015.
Mike Blake/Reuters | Caption

Viola Davis has achieved a new record at the Academy Awards. But while this year’s nominees are more ethnically diverse than the past two years, the history of African-American actors and actresses at the Oscars shows there is still farther to go.

Ms. Davis was nominated Tuesday for the 2017 best supporting actress award for her work in “Fences.” She was previously nominated for the best actress award for her work in the movie “The Help” and for the best supporting actress prize again for the film “Doubt." 

Others nominated for the best supporting actress prize this year included Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures” and Naomie Harris of “Moonlight.” Seven more actors of color were nominated Tuesday than in 2016 and 2015 (that is, none). Yet for, for example, African-American actors and actresses, they are still far underrepresented when the history of acting nominees and winners as a whole at the Oscars are examined.

For example, actress Halle Berry became the first African-American to win the best actress Oscar when she won in 2002. However, no other African-American actress has won since then.

Since Ms. Berry won, only four have been nominated. For the best actor Oscar, various African-American actors having won and been nominated for the award since Sidney Poitier became the first African-American actor to win the prize in 1964. But for winners, there have still only been three African-American winners of the best actor Oscar in the 51 years following Poitier's win. 

Meanwhile, looking more broadly at the issue, Time found last year, following the second year of all-white acting nominees, that at the time, 6.4 percent of the acting nominations given out since the first Oscars in 1929 were bestowed on non-white actors. 

As for Davis, she's no stranger to setting awards records. The ABC-TV show “How to Get Away With Murder” actress also achieved a first in 2015, when she became the first actress of color to win the Emmy for best actress in a TV drama. She used her speech to discuss parts for actresses of color, saying, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” according to Vanity Fair. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

And that opportunity comes from those in within of power in the entertainment industry. As reported by The Christian Science Monitor writer Jessica Mendoza, almost 88 percent of executive staff in Hollywood's biggest talent agencies were white men in 2015. 

Against a backdrop of nationwide racial unrest and divisive political rhetoric, prominent figures like Oscar winner Meryl Streep have used awards shows as opportunities to express the industry’s commitment to diverse communities and their stories," Ms. Mendoza wrote. "But such pronouncements have also served to highlight a less ideal reality: that people of color, women, and other minority groups are still underrepresented in Hollywood.

"There’s almost a contradiction,” says Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Hollywood is composed of people who are individually quite progressive and liberal in many of their outlooks, but are part of an industry that is largely white and male.”"