jessica tholmer
February 26, 2018 11:46 am
Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Many of us are probably familiar with the name “Dorothy Dandridge,” but some of us may not really know how or why we know her name. Throughout Black History Month, we tend to focus on the legacies of very famous Black people who are more familiar to us or who are breaking barriers in the present day. Viola Davis was the first Black woman to win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony for acting (as recently as last year). In 2002, Halle Berry was the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Since then, Berry has openly expressed how hurt she is that her win didn’t pave the way for more diversity in film or at the Oscars. While, at times, it seems that multiple Oscar-nominated films star women of color, it’s a sad fact that it took us this long to get there. It’s an even sadder fact that we have so long to go before we are truly seeing diversity in film.

But before all of this, there was Dorothy Dandridge. Dandridge, the first *ever* Black person to be nominated for a leading role at the Academy Awards in 1954.

In 1958, Sidney Poitier was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Hattie McDaniel was nominated (and won!) for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1939. But Dandridge was the first Black person to have been nominated for a leading role, Best Actress.

Like many stars back in the day, Dandridge was both an actress and a singer. Her career started young when she formed a singing group with her sister, Vivian. The group worked on and off, but disbanded after the Great Depression. When they started back up later under the name “The Wonder Children,” Dandridge started to gain attention. While performing her music, Dandridge began to seek out film roles.

She wasn’t a household name by any means, but she eventually started to gain attention for one really important thing.

Dandridge refused to act in any film that relied on African-American stereotypes.

Even to this day, that kind of refusal can hinder a person of color’s success in the industry. Because of her standards, Dandridge was punished with limited roles.

After a few key roles — Four Shall Die in 1940 and Tarzan’s Peril in the early 1950s, Dandridge’s fame began to rise. Her role in Tarzan’s Peril was highly visible because of the controversy surrounding the overt sexual nature of the film.

Dandridge landed the cover of Ebony in 1951, becoming somewhat of a sex symbol and a star, all at once.

Her first starring role, as Jane Richards in Bright Road, was alongside Harry Belafonte. The two would work together again, next time in Carmen Jones, the film that would earn Dandridge her nominationCarmen Jones was a rendition of the Oscar Hammerstein II production featuring an all-Black cast. Though it was a musical (like the original), Dandridge’s voice wasn’t considered operatic enough and was dubbed over by Marilyn Horne’s.

Regardless, Dandridge’s performance was a huge success. Her fame continued to blow up. Now considered a successful actress and a beautiful singer, Dandridge landed the cover of Life Magazine — the first Black person to ever grace the cover.

When the Oscar nominations were announced, Dandridge’s name was included alongside Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Jane Wyman, and Audrey Hepburn. Dandridge lost to Grace Kelly, but has the high honor of being the very first Black woman to be nominated for the award.

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Despicably, only 11 Black women have ever been nominated for the Best Leading Actress award.

Dandridge led the way for those women, and her name should be known and highly acknowledged. Dandridge worked tirelessly to fight against African-American stereotypes as she built a career in spite of her refusal to play into tired roles. It is a shame that her nomination didn’t encourage the Academy to pay more attention to women of color from an early era.

Dandridge died young, at the age of 42 years old. There are mixed beliefs about how she died — some say an overdose of an antidepressants, others believe it was a rare embolism. Regardless of the truth, we thank and acknowledge Dandridge for her work and legacy. During Black History Month, and during Oscar season in particular. 

Halle Berry paid homage to Dandridge in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999. Berry dedicated her Best Actress Oscar win in 2002 for Monster’s Ball to Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carol. But Dandridge should be discussed all of the time — not just during Black History Month or Oscar season. Her movie roles are multi-faceted and interesting, and her voice still croons, soft, haunting, sensual, and strong — just like her legacy. Thank you, Dorothy.

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