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4th March: African Oscar Nominees and Winners Through The Years

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The 86th Academy Awards took place 3rd march 2014 at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. This season had the highest number of Africans nominated for an award.  Leading the pack were Captain Phillips actor, Barkhad Abdi from Somalia, 12 Years A Slave actors Chiwetel Ejiofor a Briton of Nigerian descent and his co-star, Hollywood favorite, LupitaNyong’o from Kenya.

While the buzz around rising star Nyong’o has all but eclipsed the other actors’ Oscar nods this season, African actors and actresses have been quietly making inroads in Hollywood. Although roles in Hollywood films are few and far in between for African actors, when they are cast, these actors tend to own their characters and perform brilliantly. Take for example, Hollywood newcomer Barkhad Adbi from Somalia whose portrayal of Somali pirate captain, Abduwali Muse in Captain Phillips transformed him from limo driver into a Hollywood blockbuster. Back in 2006, Tsotsi, a South African film about a young street thug named Tsotsi (Zulu for thug) who shoots a woman while stealing her car, and only later discovers that her infant son is in the back seat, was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

In July 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African American film marketing executive was named president of the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences representing the 6,100-member academy.  The appointment made Isaacs the first ever African American and third woman after actress Bette Davis in 1941 and writer-producer Fay Kanin in 1979, to be selected as head of the prestigious organization. Diversity is at the core of how she’ll make her mark at the academy, “I am active in our member engagement and am seeking diverse talent domestically as well as internationally,” said Isaacs. An ambitious goal which hopefully will translate into more nominations and wins, particularly for actors of African descent.

In that vein, here is a list of all the Africans that were once nominated and / or won the prestigious award through the years.

ChiwetelEjiofor, Nigeria, Best Actor in a Leading Role, 12 Years A Slave (2013)

London-born, Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was a stage actor before his television debut in the 1996 thriller Deadly Voyage. In 1997, he landed a part in his first film appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad which led to more roles including Dirty Pretty ThingsSerenityKinky BootsTalk to MeRedbelt and Othello. Having been nominated for three Golden Globes, Ejiofor earned further critical acclaim for his role as Solomon Northup in the biopic 12 Years a Slave, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor this year.

BarkhadAdbi, Somalia, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi, born in Somalia, plays Abduwali Muse, lead member of a group of four Somali pirates who hijacked the American cargo ship, MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. The movie, a hostage drama directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, is based on a true story and is Adbi’s first role in a Hollywood movie. Not bad, considering Captain Richard Phillips, whom the Somali pirates held for ransom, is played by Tom Hanks.  The 28-year-old actor has been nominated for a total of 28 awards for this particular role, already winning the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and London Film Critics’ Circle awards for Best Supporting Actor.

LupitaNyong’o, Kenya, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Born in Mexico City, Mexico, to Kenyan parents, the 30-year actress is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama’s acting program and was awarded the Herschel Williams Prize given to acting students with outstanding ability. In her American film debut, Nyong’o plays a brutalized slave, Patsey in the critically acclaimed movie 12 Years A Slave. For that role, Nyong’o won the Critics’ Choice Award and Screen Actors Guild for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and was nominated for both the BAFTA and Golden Globe. She will next be featured in Liam Neeson’s upcoming film Non-Stop.

CharlizeTheron, South Africa, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Monster, (2003)

The South African actress won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as serial killer, Aileen Wuornos in the crime drama film, Monster based on a true story. She also won the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe, amongst others for that particular role. Born in Benoni, South Africa, Theron came to Los Angeles without any contacts and after eight months in the city, got her first acting role. Her career skyrocketed after her portrayal as Mary Ann Lomax, opposite Keanu Reeves, in Devil’s Advocate. Theron was nominated again for Best Actress for her role as Josey Aimes in North Country in 2005.

DjimonHounsou, Benin, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, In America (2003)

The former fashion model appeared in music videos for Love Will Never Do (Without You) by Janet Jackson and Straight Up by Paula Abdul before his big break as Cinque in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, Amistad in 1994. He was the first African actor to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2003 for his role as HIV positive Nigerian artist Mateo Kuamey in the movie In America. 2003 was also the first time that an African man and an African woman (Charlize Theron) were nominated for an Oscar in the same year. In 2006, Hounsou was nominated again for Best Supporting Actor in a Supporting Role for his role as Solomon Vandy in Blood Diamonds.

Sophie Okonedo, Nigeria, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Hotel Rwanda, (2004)

Sophie Okonedo was born in London, England to a Nigerian father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother, and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before making her acting debut in the British coming-of-age drama, Young Soul Rebels.  She received an Academy Award nomination in 2004 for her critically acclaimed role as Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, a Golden Globe nomination for Tsunami: The Aftermath in 2006 and BAFTA nominations for Criminal Justice in 2009 and Mrs. Mandela in 2010.

RemiAdefarasin, Nigeria, Best Cinematography, Elizabeth (1998)

London-born Nigerian cinematographer, Remi Adefarasin was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for his services to the television and film industries.  Adefarasin’s work on the movie, Elizabeth in 1998 won him awards for Best Cinematography from the British Society of Cinematographers and the BAFTA, as well as an Academy Award nomination.

Caiphus Semenya, South Africa, Best Original Music Score, The Color Purple (1985)

Self-exiled to the U.S. in the 1960’s, Caiphus Semenya is an internationally celebrated music director and composer from South Africa. Married to another South African musical powerhouse, Letta Mbulu, Semenya has regularly collaborated with Quincy Jones resulting in Semenya composing all the African music for Alex Hayley’s 1970’s miniseries, Roots, part one and two. Semenya received an Oscar nod in 1985 for Best Original Music Score for composing the African music in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. In 1990, he served as the music director for the Nelson Mandela Tribute and for the now late Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994.

Jonas Gwangwa, South Africa, Best Original Music Score, Cry Freedom (1987)

Born in 1941 in Soweto, South Africa, Jonas Gwangwa is an important jazz musician who composed the score for the 1987 Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom for which he landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Music Score. He shared the nomination with British composer George Fenton.

The Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award is given to a feature-length film (predominantly non-English dialogue) produced outside the U.S. Out of the 65 awards handed out by the Academy Awards since 1947 to foreign language films, three African films won the academy award in this category. The films were Z in 1969 from Algeria, Black and White in Color in 1976 from Ivory Coast and Tsotsi from South Africa in 2005. Nominees in this category included Le Bal, 1983 from Algeria; Dust of Life in 1995 from Algeria; Yesterday in 2004 from South Africa; Days of Glory, from Algeria in 2006 and Outside Law from Algeria in 2010.

An honorable mention goes to Roger Ross William who won an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Short Subject category for his 2010 short documentary Music by Prudence. The documentary is an inspirational tale about Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena, who was born severely disabled but overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles through her music, love and courage.


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