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Actors of color and the Oscars

by The Concordian February 26, 2012
Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress” on February 29, 1940 for playing the black slave “Mammy” in the Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. At the age of 39, McDaniel was the first African-American to be honoured by  Academy voters in its 12 short years of existence. But of course, these were the ‘40s, and so when McDaniel won, she didn’t turn directly to her colleagues and hug them in a state of euphoria. McDaniel couldn’t clasp Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in her arms, because she and her date were sitting apart from the rest of the group, segregated according to the rules of the day. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” she told the crowd. McDaniel had broken one colour barrier, but she and other blacks were still very much in a segregated industry.Fast forward some decades, and segregation is over. People of African heritage have picked up coveted accolades at the Oscars, as in 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were memorably anointed best actor and actress. We now have a black Disney princess – a superficial signifier of equality for little girls everywhere – and a black president. We appear to have made progress. But it’s been a year since the Hollywood Reporter dubbed the 2011 awards the “whitest Oscars” in a decade – lamenting the fact that no actors of colour were nominated. Jezebel blog noticed that actors of colour never seem to make it on the main panel of Vanity Fair’s prestigious three-fold “Hollywoood” issue cover. Now, two black women stand poised to potentially pick up a statuette for their acting work, nominated for Oscars, as McDaniel was, for their work playing domestics.
In The Help Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer portray Aibileen and Minny, two downtrodden black servants living in a Civil Rights-era Mississippi thick with racism. They cook, clean and raise white families, and damnit, they cook good fried chicken. But they are at the mercy of the whims of their neurotic, pretentious white bosses/owners. The two women share their oral histories to a young, white writer in the hope of changing their status quo through a book, The Help. But while Davis and Spencer, and their movie, which is also nominated for Best Picture, have been lauded and feted, many detractors have called out The Help for depicting black people relying on an educated, wealthy young woman, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), as their “white saviour.” The Association of Black Women Historians issued a statement to “fans” of the movie that found fault with its “disappointing resurrection of Mammy” – ostensibly, McDaniel’s Oscar-winning character as stereotype. “Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them,” reads the statement. The Help’s popularity is “troubling” because it “reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.” The film was also criticized for the dialogue, calling the way the black characters expressed themselves as “child-like, over-exaggerated ‘black’ dialect.” Aibileen’s oft-repeated words to the white child she cares for and loves jump to mind: “you is smaht, you is kind, you is impohtant.” Akiba Solomon, writing at Color Lines, an online magazine devoted to news about racial injustice, laid out her thoughts under “Why I’m Just Saying No to ‘The Help’ and Its Historical Whitewash.” While she felt “obligated” to see the movie for a number of reasons, including the need to support black actors, Solomon won’t “watch these sisters lend gravitas to (The Help writer Kathryn) Stockett’s white heroine mythology.” Solomon uses the sharp words of several critics to emphasize her point,including novelist Martha Southgate, who writes: “The structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The Help makes us believe that a white person is “somehow crucial or even necessary” to talking about civil rights.
The white saviour is an oft-repeated trope in modern film: movies like The Blind Side, Hairspray, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers all depict a plucky, admirable white person who, through their own grace and bravery, step in to raise the poor black folk out of their misery. “White man saves the day”, quips Quincy Armorer, artistic director at Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop. What starts out as a “good” opportunity for visible minorities performers can be upstaged by a white saviour. “So it ends up not really being about the people of colour or them but it’s about the good, white people that help them,” explains Armorer. “And that, sometimes, is a little bit annoying.” Interestingly enough, McDaniel and Gone with the Wind herself were criticized in their day. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People called out the movie for its depiction of abuse of blacks by whites. And McDaniel, a successful actress and comedian in her own right with a long career (though the majority of her work went uncredited) was accused of not doing enough to raise the profile of black performers. (McDaniel herself barred from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta because of Jim Crow laws.) So, clearly, some things never change. But black women have recently won Oscars for roles that didn’t involve looking after spoiled white peeps – Mo’nique played an evil, ascerbic mother in Precious, and Berry was a conflicted wife in Monster’s Ball.

One movie this January told an empowering tale of black history sans white saviour, but it almost didn’t see the light of day. Star Wars genius George Lucas, an extremely wealthy and successful movie-making white man, publicly lamented how difficult it was to secure financing and distribution for Red Tails.It’s a swashbuckling flick for black teenagers, as he puts it, on the Tuskegee airmen, African-American pilots in World War II. It’s a story both true and inspiring, but he couldn’t stir up any interest from financiers, so he paid for the prints and distribution. Lucas told the New York Times he felt that the film didn’t fit in with the industry’s marketing plans. He summed up trying to pitch the movie as such: “Well, it’s kind of like ‘The Color Purple,’ only they’re in airplanes. It’s sort of like a Tyler Perry movie, only without jokes.”

Lucas’s awkward comparison raises another concern: Perry’s movies, like his Madea series, are rollicking comedies featuring black actors, targeted for black audiences. While they are successful, some fear that they take away from more series thespian pursuits. “There seems to be a market for that,” says Bonnie Farmer, a Montrealer, teacher, children’s book author and playwright. “But for serious dramas, there does seem to be an absence of good material out there for [black] actors.” The Help, obviously, doesn’t really count. Farmer would like to see more black characters facing ordinary problems, and not just living out romcoms. And diversity in books, movies and television is important for young people of colour: “If everything you see is one image, then how can you relate to it?” Farmer describes growing up black as living “in two worlds.” There is your reality, and then there is a whitewashed depiction you see onscreen. In reaction, many of the characters in Farmer’s books and plays are black. What’s ironic is that though Lucas hired a black director for Red Wings, he’s almost a bit of a white saviour himself – a rich Caucasian steering a black project. Actress Michelle Sweeney thinks that onus for this search for richer roles and stories for people of colour needs to come from “ourselves.” Sweeney is an actress and singer you might remember best as the strict vice-principal Mrs. Morton in the late ‘90s teen television series Student Bodies. But she also has her share of credits on IMDB as waitress, server or nurse. “Wehave a black president, I think it’s about time that we can do a little bit more for ourselves,” she says. “We have to step up.”

In an ideal world, Hollywood should take its cues from Black Theatre Workshop, where the goal is to put showcase empowering stories and roles for people of colour. And they aim for a wide audience: “We don’t do theatre for black people, we do theatre for everyone,” said Armorer. Maybe it’s just been a couple of off-years in terms of diversity on film and television. But seeing Spencer and Davis getting noticed for playing servants, decades after McDaniel won for playing a caricature, you kind of wonder what it will take to see more empowering roles for actors of visible minorities, and not just stereotypes and token roles.

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