If the last 10 years serve as a forecast of Academy Awards viewership, lots of African Americans likely won’t be tuning in to the Oscars on Sunday. All 20 of the acting nominations went to white actors—the second time that’s happened in nearly two decades—while Selma’s David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay were snubbed. (Selma is nominated for best picture and best original song for “Glory.”) Without much of a draw for African Americans at this year’s Oscars, The Root decided to give out its own set of golden statuettes for the best of the year. We even added in a few special categories to highlight some overlooked performances.
Best Picture: Selma
This was an easy pick for us. With Boyhood and Birdman snatching up all the preliminary prizes, it’s unlikely that Selma will win on Sunday, which is a shame. With standout performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, Selma was one of the most talked-about films of the year. And against the backdrop of nationwide protests in 2014 about police brutality in cities from Ferguson, Mo., to New York, the film was as timely as it was a powerful look back at a moment in civil rights history.
Best Director: Ava DuVernay, Selma
This, too, was a no-brainer. Ava DuVernay’s Selma was a masterly portrait of a key event during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. DuVernay, of course, is no stranger to directing great films (see Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow). She has lots of projects in the works, including the drama series Queen Sugar, which she will direct, write and executive-produce for OWN; a CBS pilot called For Justice; and a film about Hurricane Katrina.
Best Up-and-Coming Director: Justin Simien
Justin Simien’s first feature film, Dear White People, earned a ton of praise at the Sundance Film Festival, where the director won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent in 2014. The film’s success is all the more praiseworthy considering that Simien raised money for the film through crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Billed as a racial satire, the indie film maintained its buzz after it was released in theaters, where it was a big box office draw. Up next? Simien is reportedly slated to direct Make a Wish, a film about a 14-year-old dying of cancer whose last wish is to meet his favorite football player, who will be played by Anthony Mackie.
Best Actor: David Oyelowo, Selma
David Oyelowo had a long road ahead of him before finally portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. He initially read the script in July 2007 and saw the director’s slot move from Stephen Frears to Paul Haggis to Spike Lee to Lee Daniels to Ava DuVernay during the eight-year time span. His stunning portrayal of the civil rights icon didn’t earn him an Oscar nod, but he was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor and recently won an NAACP Award. Soon he will team up with DuVernay for a third time in a drama set during Hurricane Katrina.
Best Actress: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Variety named Belle one of its most underrated films of 2014. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw definitely gave one of the standout performances of the year. She portrayed Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a captain in the British Navy and an African slave who was raised by one of the most powerful men in Britain. Later in the year, Mbatha-Raw starred opposite Nate Parker in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights. This year she’s slated to be the female lead in Concussion, opposite Will Smith.
Best Breakout Year: Tessa Thompson
Tessa Thompson appeared in two of the most talked-about films of the year. She starred as Sam White, a radio host at a fictional Ivy League school, in Dear White People and in Selma as civil rights activist Diane Nash. Up next? Thompson has landed the female lead in Creed, the next film from Oscar-nominated director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station).
Best Supporting Actor: Tyler James Williams, Dear White People
Tyler James Williams, the gay, Afro-wearing, awkward student at Winchester, struggles to fit in at the fictitious Ivy League school in Dear White People. Most recently, fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead have watched Williams play Noah.
Best Supporting Actress: Carmen Ejogo, Selma
There might not have been a role for Carmen Ejogo in Selma had Ava DuVernay not stepped in; the original script didn’t include Coretta Scott King. Ejogo gave an amazing performance as the civil rights icon, and she has a star quality about her. Perhaps the British-born actress gave such a spot-on portrayal of Scott King because she’s done it before. In 2001 she starred as Scott King opposite Jeffrey Wright as Martin Luther King Jr. in Boycott. This year she will appear opposite Ethan Hawke in the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue.
Best Bad-Ass Performance by an Actor: Denzel Washington, The Equalizer
We know one thing for sure: Denzel is still a bona fide movie star. In its opening weekend, The Equalizer scored $35 million at the box office. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and Washington teamed up again for this action-packed thriller, where Denzel, now 60, is a gun-wielding vigilante trying to help a girl who is being controlled by Russian gangsters. Denzel to the rescue!
Best Bad-Ass Performance by an Actress: Zoe Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy
She may have been a green superhero in the film, but Zoe Saldana was one of the few actresses of color with a lead role in a mainstream film this award season. Saldana was a lethal assassin in the film, which raked in more than $700 million at the box office.
Best Original Screenplay: Dear White People
A good satire requires brilliant wit and smart takes on big issues. Justin Simien’s Dear White People has a strong dose of both. Want to take a look for yourself? Roadside Attractions uploaded the screenplay here (pdf).
Best Comedic Pairing: Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, Ride Along
Kevin Hart is make-your-stomach-hurt funny. Pair him with a straight man in the form of Ice Cube and you have the perfect comedic duo. Ride Along was the top-grossing black film of 2014, pulling in $134.2 million. Producers are hoping for another big moneymaker with its sequel, which is set for release on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016.
Best Surprise Performance: DMX, Top Five
Art is imitating life for DMX, who shows up in a jail cell across the way from Chris Rock in Top Five. Singing his rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Earl Simmons’ cameo was great comic relief from a man whose own life is usually filled with drama.
Best Improv Moment: Top Five
Put a gaggle of black comedians on-screen and you’re bound to have jokes flying around the room every two seconds. With Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones also serving up a lot of the jokes in this scene, writer-director (and co-star) Chris Rock says, “That was a challenging scene as an actor because I had to really bring it.”
Best Documentary: Nas: Time Is Illmatic
In the doc Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, the rapper takes us to Queenbridge, the New York City housing project where he was raised, and talks about his upbringing and his creative process. With rave reviews from Billboard, Newsweek and Indiewire, the documentary made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.