Nearly three-quarters of a century before the film "12 Years a Slave," a scathing indictment of slavery, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel won a supporting actress Oscar for playing the loyal slave Mammy in 1939's "Gone With the Wind."
McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar and though her performance was beloved and paved the way for other minority actors, it was not without its detractors at the time. There was a similar reaction eight years later when James Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus in Walt Disney's live action-animated musical "Song of the South." The NAACP and other civil rights groups criticized the performances and the films for presenting stereotyped and negative images of blacks.
Adilifu Nama, associate professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, said McDaniel's win was a significant achievement but one "loaded with a lot of political and racial issues given that the film was the classic archetype of the Mammy. The role is fundamentally a subservient role and is part of a film that is a Southern racial fantasy."
Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win a competitive Oscar when he picked up the lead actor Academy Award for 1963's "Lilies of the Field." Poitier's win paved the way for other black actors and actresses in more recent decades, including Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Morgan Freeman.
Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts, believes that Poitier's win "marks a major transition" away from the archetype roles." But to Boyd many of the roles before and even after Poitier's breakthrough provided only a limited view of the black experience in America.
"The entirety of the history of African Americans in Hollywood has been problematic and I think, in some ways, still is," Boyd said. "A lot of people looked at those movies as sort of an authentic representation of what African Americans were like. It shaped the way African Americans were perceived."
This Oscar season has been a strong one for black-oriented films and performers, led by director Steve McQueen's acclaimed "12 Years a Slave." McQueen is nominated for best director and if he wins he would be the first black filmmaker to win that award. (He's only the third black filmmaker to be nominated following John Singleton for 1991's "Boyz N the Hood" and Lee Daniels for 2009's "Precious.")
Two of the harrowing drama's stars — Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o — are also up for Oscars in the lead actor and supporting actress categories. And Somali-born Barkhad Abdi is in contention for a supporting actor Oscar for "Captain Phillips."
A surprisingly large number of black performers helped pave the way with Oscar-winning and -nominated performances from McDaniel through Diahann Carroll, who earned her lead actress nomination in the 1974 comedy "Claudine." Besides being limited to certain stereotyped roles like maids and servants, a number of them faced real-life prejudice as well.
Here's a look those early pioneers.
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952): "Gone With the Wind" (1939)
In her tearful Oscar acceptance speech, McDaniel said: "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry." But just a few months earlier, she and the film's other African American actors were barred from attending the premiere of the 1939 film in racially segregated Atlanta.
McDaniel consistently ran into criticism for perpetuating negative stereotypes in her role choices, which led her to say at one point, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."
McDaniel, who found success on the radio in the late 1940s in the comedy "Beulah," died in 1952. She wanted to be buried at Hollywood Memorial Park, now known as Hollywood Forever, but it had a restricted policy. There is now a memorial to her at the cemetery.
James Baskett (1904-48) "Song of the South" (1947)
The singer-dancer-actor, who played lawyer Gabby Gibson on the radio in "Amos 'n' Andy," won an honorary Oscar for "his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to children of the world, in Walt Disney's 'Song of the South.'" Baskett also introduced the Academy Award-winning song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
The film, which is set in the South after the Civil War, raised the ire of civil rights groups such as the NAACP, which decried "the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts." The last time Disney released the film was 1986.