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A history of ignorance: 50 diverse artists who should have received Oscar nods – but never did

Academy Awards

A history of ignorance

The Globe and Mail presents 50 diverse performers and filmmakers who not only have failed to win an Oscar, but also have never even received the honour of a nomination

It's easy to argue that the Academy Awards never get it right. Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan (or The Thin Red Line, for that matter)? The Oscars have worked long and hard at becoming synonymous with artistic ignorance. Yet this year's lily-white slate represents a whole new level of obliviousness. Where is Michael B. Jordan's knockout performance in Creed, Idris Elba's terrifying turn in Beasts of No Nation and Benicio del Toro's haunting work in Sicario? The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that sprung up after this year's nomination ceremony speaks an embarrassing truth.

At the same time, though, this ignorance is an unfortunate part of the industry's DNA. Even a cursory glance at Oscar history reveals a huge gap when it comes to recognizing iconic moments in cinema that just happen to come from artists of colour. Here, The Globe and Mail presents 50 of those diverse performers and filmmakers who not only have failed to win an Oscar, but also have never even received the honour of a nomination. It's by no means a definitive list – simply a snapshot of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's steadfast refusal to honour revelatory work.

Nina Mae McKinney, Hallelujah! (1929)

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Everett Collection

MGM's musical was one of the first all-black films backed by a major studio and featured Broadway star McKinney in her debut feature role as a wily seductress. Yet while the white director, King Vidor, got an Oscar nomination, the film's cast, including the smouldering McKinney, went unrecognized.

Oscar Micheaux, The Exile (1931)

Courtesy Everett Collection

Micheaux was the first major black director, and his debut feature-length talkie is a landmark drama of race and romance. Yet, despite the powerful film and what would become a long and storied career, Micheaux was never honoured by the academy.

Louise Beavers, Imitation of Life (1934)

Everett Collection

Like so many of her contemporaries, Beavers was often stuck playing the role of servant or slave. Yet John M. Stahl's controversial drama gave her supporting housekeeper character Delilah actual depth. Thanks to Beavers's fully realized performance, it was the first time a black woman's life was given true weight in a major Hollywood production. Naturally, the academy ignored her in favour of nominating the film for best picture, assistant director and sound mixing.

Paul Robeson, Song of Freedom (1936)

A onetime National Football League player, Robeson takes top billing in this revolutionary British film about a dockworker who becomes one of the world's greatest opera stars. The actor didn't have much of a chance for future projects, though: He was blacklisted from the industry for his left-wing activism, and naturally, Oscar never came calling.

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Ralph Cooper, The Duke Is Tops (1938)

Queasily dubbed The Dark Clark (as in Gable), Cooper was an astoundingly handsome and smooth on-screen presence, no more so than in this low-budget musical co-starring Lena Horne.

James Edwards, Home of the Brave (1949)

Although the film was ranked the eighth-best of the year by the National Board of Review, Edwards was overlooked for any awards for his groundbreaking role as a black soldier fighting back against racism while serving in the South Pacific during the Second World War.

Canada Lee, Cry, the Beloved Country (1951)

This adaptation of Alan Paton's novel is mostly recognized for an early appearance by Sidney Poitier, but it is Lee's final on-screen role as a minister in search of his derelict son that is the true highlight.

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Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai (1954)

Japan's Mifune has a shockingly long filmography (almost 170 films), yet it's his work with pioneering director Akira Kurosawa that remains the cornerstone of his career. His starring role in this legendary adventure film inspired countless filmmakers, yet the academy would never acknowledge the debt cinema owed him.

Satyajit Ray, Aparajito (1956)

This masterful coming-of-age tale forms the second part of Ray's Apu Trilogy – and though most critics lean toward the first instalment, Pather Panchali, it is with Aparajito that the director's vision fully blossoms. Widely acclaimed by cinematic bodies the world over, Aparajito was never acknowledged by the academy, save for Ray's honorary award in 1992 – handed to him just a few months before the filmmaker died at the age of 70.

Estelle Hemsley, Take a Giant Step (1959)

This coming-of-age film about a black teen's troubles adapting to a white neighbourhood is far from perfect, but Hemsley's performance as the boy's grandmother is heartbreaking – so much so that the Golden Globes recognized it, if not the Oscars.

Brock Peters, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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The iconic Harper Lee adaptation garnered Oscars for star Gregory Peck, its screenplay and art direction – plus nods for best picture, best director, best supporting actress, best cinematography and best score – yet Peters was cast aside for his stellar performance as accused rapist Tom Robinson.

Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero invented the zombie genre with this black-and-white cult classic. But the film didn't just transform the horror genre, it also inverted racial stereotypes by casting the steely Jones as the strong and calm hero.

Ossie Davis, The Scalphunters (1968)

Poet, actor and playwright Davis enjoyed a long and storied career, but it's this mostly forgotten Sydney Pollack western that shows the multihyphenate's greatest range. It was good enough to get a Golden Globe nod, at least.

Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree (1969)

Parks is best known for basically inventing blaxploitation with his 1971 film Shaft, but he should also be remembered for the adaptation of his own autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. The coming-of-age story set in 1920s rural Kansas can seem overly sentimental to cynical eyes, but its visually stunning composure expertly reflects Parks's career as a photojournalist.

Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

Like Parks, Van Peebles became a blaxploitation icon, though his self-financed action-drama – which he also wrote, edited, composed the music for and stars in – is much more than a mere grindhouse diversion. Subversive in its message, cutting-edge in technique and wildly ambitious in scope, the film is just as much a cultural touchstone as it is a piece of thrilling cinema.

Fernando Rey, The French Connection (1971)

Director William Friedkin practically built the gritty cop genre from the ground up with The French Connection, but every good police story needs an equally good villain, which Rey provided in spades. As the heroin dealer Alain Charnier, the Spanish character actor delivered a performance of pure malevolence. Of course, the academy nominated almost everyone involved in the film, except him.

Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come (1972)

The thriller is best known for Cliff's groundbreaking soundtrack, which introduced reggae to the world. That should have been enough to garner Cliff at least an Oscar nod for music, but the musician also starred and wrote the film, a sharp look at the Jamaican underworld.

Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon (1973)

It's inconceivable that such an influential talent as Lee would be Oscar-less, but then again, Enter the Dragon was only his fourth film, and released just six days after his death at the age of 32 from cerebral edema. (It's easy to assume, however, that a legacy-hungry academy would think that compelling narrative worthy of even a nomination, but no.)

Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles (1975)

While Mel Brooks's game-changing comedy is now a cornerstone of the genre, its star went virtually unrecognized, save a "most promising newcomer" BAFTA award. It's inexcusable, given how integral the deadpan Little is to the production's off-the-wall sensibilities.

Carl Weathers, Rocky (1976)

For anyone wondering how the academy could overlook the black talent behind Creed, simply go back to when Rocky dominated the awards race. Nearly everyone involved in the film – from director John G. Avildsen and star/writer Sylvester Stallone to supporting actors Burgess Meredith and Burt Young – got either an Oscar statuette or a nomination. Everyone, that is, except for Weathers, whose Apollo Creed is the cocky yin to Rocky Balboa's hang-dog yang. Without Weathers's delightfully float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee performance, the film would be expendable.

Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep (1978)

This is a bit of a cheat, as Burnett's ultra-low-budget drama was not properly released until 2007,because of rights issues. Still, the impact the film had during its initial, if truncated, run cannot be overstated: This is the work of a master artist. Chronicling the life of a slaughterhouse worker in the low-income Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts, Killer of Sheep is just as daring as the work of Stanley Kubrick and intimate as the films of Robert Altman.

Danny Glover, The Color Purple (1985) and Witness (1985)

Glover enjoyed a banner year in 1985, playing two despicable characters with aplomb. In Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The Color Purple, he was the cruel Albert Johnson, who treats heroine Celie like a slave. Then in Witness, Glover plays corrupt cop James McFee, the main antagonist to Harrison Ford's Amish-befriending hero. Despite these two remarkable turns, plus a career of indelible on-screen moments in everything from Silverado to Lethal Weapon to Grand Canyon, Glover has gone Oscar-less.

Robert Townsend, Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Although it hasn't aged as well as Townsend's Raw, the writer-director-star's racial satire is an undeniably incendiary piece of comedy. Given its target – Hollywood and its baffling treatment of minorities – it's no surprise the film didn't endear itself to academy tastes.

Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (1989)

Axel Schmidt/The Associated Press

Whatever you think of Lee's current output, it's impossible to deny the fiery brilliance he displayed as a writer and director with Do the Right Thing. Yet Lee received only a screenplay nod, while – in an echo of this year's situation with Creed – the film's only white player (Danny Aiello) received a best supporting actor nomination. Even more galling: That year's best-picture Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy, a creaky drama whose black characters were thin caricatures. Perhaps in an effort to right its wrongs for never acknowledging Lee's directorial output, the academy last year gave him its honorary award – which he accepted before eviscerating the industry: "It's easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than be the head of a studio."

Raul Julia, Presumed Innocent (1990)

The Puerto Rican actor will forever be remembered as Gomez Addams (or, to a certain and less fortunate generation, Street Fighter's M. Bison), but his portrayal of a crafty defence lawyer in this Harrison Ford vehicle is a master class in how to steal the show.

Wesley Snipes, Jungle Fever (1991)

Spike Lee's interracial romance-drama features a breakout performance from Samuel L. Jackson, but it's Snipes who also deserves acclaim for his slow-boil turn as a conflicted family man. It's a shame he never got any recognition for his dramatic chops – it might have saved us all the lowlights of his late-career action schlock.

Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film directed by a black woman in the United States, would be an achievement regardless of quality – although it's startling to realize it took until 1991 for such a thing to happen. Yet the film is more than a milestone: By chronicling one family through the perspective of an unborn child, Dash's drama is a rich and innovative work of intense creativity.

Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi (1992)

Before Rodriguez fell down a grindhouse-sized rabbit hole of exploitation cheapos (Machete, Sin City), he was making uniquely thrilling cinema, none more so than his no-frills feature debut, El Mariachi. The gunslinger saga ushered in a new wave of Mexican film and low-budget indie work in general – and is still just as electric and shocking in its slick execution.

Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino's second feature is brilliant for any number of reasons, Rhames's performance being one small, but crucial part. As the vengeful crime boss Marsellus Wallace, Rhames is the textbook definition of intimidating – which is why his brief comeuppance at the hands of redneck Zed is such a shocking act, and one handled so deftly by a performer as determined and committed as Rhames.

Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express (1994)

Junji Kurokawa/The Associated Press

The Hong Kong auteur delivers his masterpiece with Chungking Express, a tale of yearning that is unequalled in modern cinema. Despite the film's wild construction and engrossing visuals, it wasn't even given the courtesy of a foreign-language nomination (the blame, though, rests with Hong Kong, which instead submitted Yim Ho's The Day the Sun Turned Cold for Oscar consideration). Still, you would assume the academy would wise up and put any of the director's later work on a pedestal. Yet Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046 have also been ignored.

Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat (1996)

A Broadway veteran, Wright delivered a jolt to the senses with his portrayal of Jean-Michel Basquiat. After shedding 30 pounds for the role, Wright – best known today for his work in Daniel Craig's Bond films and on television's Boardwalk Empire – also had to deal with the mercurial temperament of director Julian Schnabel. That alone is worthy of an Oscar.

Pam Grier, Jackie Brown (1997)

Ho New/Reuters

Quentin Tarantino has a fun habit of turning faded stars into awards contenders, but for some reason the academy didn't buy his attempt to resuscitate Grier's career. No matter – the actress's lengthy blaxploitation résumé (including the lead role in Foxy Brown, its title deliberately echoed here) perfectly prepared her for this role of a lifetime, one she seized with a delightful embrace.

Jennifer Lopez, Selena (1997) and Out of Sight (1998)

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Gigli may be an easy punchline, but there was a time when Lopez was one of the greatest young actresses of her generation. In the biographical drama Selena, she plays the slain Mexican pop star with a youthful abandon that is heartbreaking. Just a year later, she flipped expectations around by embracing the sexy, adult crime drama of Steven Soderbergh's eternally cool Out of Sight. Both somehow eluded the academy.

Thandie Newton, Beloved (1998)

This adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel is riddled with problems, from Oprah Winfrey's leaden awards-bait performance to Jonathan Demme's directorial heavy-handedness. Yet Newton, as the title character, stands apart – a confident exercise of courage in an otherwise muddled film.

Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Chan Kam Chuen/REUTERS

The critical consensus is that Ziyi was snubbed for her role in 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha, but that Rob Marshall-directed diversion did the actress no favours. Instead, Ziyi should have been honoured for her breakout role in Ang Lee's 2000 masterpiece, where she her grounded performance contrasted perfectly with her director's gravity-defying vision.

Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love (2000)

Just as director Wong Kar-wai has been brushed off by the academy, so, too has his leading lady of choice. There were any number of reasons Cheung should have been nominated for her role as a lonely Hong Kong secretary – her soulful presence, her chemistry with co-star Tony Leung, her emotional restraint. All were ignored by the academy.

Marlon Wayans, Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Yes, the same Marlon Wayans who is responsible for Fifty Shades of Black, White Chicks and the legitimately horrifying Little Man is deserving of a gold statuette. In Darren Aronofsky's punishing anti-drug public service announcement, Wayans sheds any sense of vanity and embraces the role of an addict without any pretense. It's a captivating and frightening dramatic debut.

Gael Garcia Bernal, Y tu mama tambien (2001)

Part road movie, part coming-of-age tale, part romance, Alfonso Cuaron's film is universally acclaimed for its depiction of a friendship coming apart at the seams. Yet while the director scored an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, the film's best asset – Bernal's delicate work as the jealousy-prone Julio – was left unmentioned. It's not surprising, though, that Bernal has since become the poster boy for Latin American cinema.

Rosario Dawson, 25th Hour (2002)

I promise that this isn't meant as a rundown of Spike Lee's greatest hits, but: Dawson shines here as Naturelle, the girlfriend of convicted drug dealer Monty (Edward Norton), who is savouring his last day as a free man. At times suspicious, impetuous, furious and mournful, Dawson hits every emotional note Lee throws at her. The film is practically drowning in name-brand actors – including Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brian Cox – but Dawson owns her scenes with a ferocity that is unmatched.

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Jonathan Demme's work can be wildly hit or miss (see Beloved, above), but he made a brilliant move by directing Lumet's screenplay for this family-drama horror show. It's not easy to elicit sympathy for a narcissist, yet that's exactly what Lumet's script here does, turning what might have been a bland Anne Hathaway vehicle into something profound.

Sophie Okonedo, Skin (2008)

This under-seen British film often slips into easy sentimentality, which isn't surprising given its true-life origins: Based on the book When She Was White, the film focuses on the life of Sandra Laing, a South African white woman who was classified as "coloured" during apartheid because of a case of atavism. But however often Anthony Fabian's film stumbles, star Okonedo lifts it right back up, giving invigorating life to Laing's tale.

Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Fox Searchlight

It's not every actress who makes her feature debut in an Oscar-nominated blockbuster. And yet, while Danny Boyle's fast-paced romance snagged eight Academy Award nominations, Pinto and her fellow co-star Dev Patel received zero. Given that Pinto delivers a radiant performance that ties the whole production together, it makes for a harsh introduction to the industry.

Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station (2013)

Coogler was undeservedly snubbed for his work on Creed, but his feature debut was just as worthy of attention. Chronicling the final day of Oscar Grant III (played by now-frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan), Fruitvale Station is a powerful treatise on race and power in modern America that too quickly faded from the awards conversation.

Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Keith Bernstein

If we can't award Elba an Oscar for his work on HBO's The Wire (or, really, for his knowingly cheesy role in Pacific Rim), then the academy could have at least given him a nod for portraying Nelson Mandela. The part was practically designed to check off all of Oscar's favourite boxes: inspirational hero, struggle to overcome diversity, hotly anticipated leading role for an actor on the cusp, etc. Yet, nothing.

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Guatemalan-American Isaac is currently enjoying his much-deserved status as the Internet's favourite boyfriend thanks to roles in Ex Machina and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Yet the actor enjoyed his breakthrough in this Coen brothers classic, an absurdly great look at one very unlucky singer eking it out in Greenwich Village's sixties folk scene. Perhaps appropriately, Llewyn Davis was as unlucky in life as he was at the Oscars.

Ava DuVernay, Selma (2014)

When your film gets a nomination for best picture, yet you find yourself snubbed in the best-director category, you know something is amiss. Such was the case with DuVernay's sharp and exacting biopic, whose direction seemed to go over the academy's heads for unknown reasons.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle (2013)

The sleeper art-house hit of the year, Amma Asante's period piece couldn't have succeeded without star Mbatha-Raw's stirring performance. As the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British earl, the actress balances vulnerability with an innate sense of power that's astonishing to watch.

Tyler Perry, Gone Girl (2014)

Say what you will about Perry's output as a writer-director (and we're polite so … we won't), but there's little point denying his whip-smart turn as slick defence attorney Tanner Bolt in David Fincher's riotous thriller. It is scenery-chewing at its finest.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, Beyond the Lights (2014)

A cautionary tale about the perils of pop-music fame seems ripe for parody, but Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) is an expert when it comes to crafting believable, grounded tales. Here, the writer-director offers a love story that is as authentic as it is engrossing.

Chris Rock, Top Five (2014)

Rock's semi-autobiographical comedy made a huge splash when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, yet was entirely dismissed after its release a few months later. No matter: The academy is free to ignore Rock's supremely hilarious film, and Rock is free to (hopefully) lambaste the academy when he hosts this year's awards ceremony on Sunday night.

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