Thursday, February 23, 2012
Heaven "Help" Us
I have a confession: In recently watching “The Help” honored at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, I was tempted to carry around a rabbit's foot, a box of lucky charms, and a pocket full of pennies in hopes that lightening will NOT strike a third time at Sunday's Academy Awards. Needless to say, I was not a fan of the movie. Now, before you chastise me for wishing something so sinister on such hard-working actors who simply want nothing more than to be celebrated by their peers, let me explain.
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel received an Oscar for best supporting actress for playing a maid. Fast forward 73 years (yes, you read that correctly), and two of Hollywood's best African-American actresses today (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) are being nominated for playing what? You guessed it. Maids. No matter how one spins it (or peppers their acceptance speech with accolades to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to justify the necessity of such a movie and role (uh, yeah, Octavia)), there's no getting around the fact that when it comes to blacks being celebrated in and by Hollywood, it is mostly for roles that reflect them in a subservient or less favorable light, e.g., welfare mothers (Halle Berry's "Monster's Ball" and Monique's "Precious"), bad guys (Denzel Washington's "Training Day"), overly-animated caricatures (Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Jerry Maguire" and Whoopi Goldberg's "Ghost"), and servants (Morgan Freeman's "Driving Miss Daisy"), and the list goes on and on. Sure, there are a few African-American's who have been properly celebrated for powerful, uplifting roles, but the bottom line is this: there is simply not a enough of those roles given or celebrated to create enough of a balance to where seeing us play the maids, thugs, and pimps, is not still difficult to swallow.
If there were more diversity in Hollywood in the roles we were offered and, thus, celebrated for, this blog post--and the many articles speaking on this same topic--would be unnecessary. If there was a presidential role for every pimp role; a captain's role for every convict role; and a microbiologist role for every maid role, I'd be the first to celebrate...but there aren't. And until there is, it's up to black actors to be more selective in how we're represented and celebrated. Just as it’s also the responsibility of our legends to not take steps backward that hurt those chances as well (i.e., our most respected Cicely Tyson also playing a maid in this movie). The argument that regardless of the roles taken, winning awards helps to open doors for us couldn't be further from the truth if they're continuously opening the SAME doors. Yes, it's tough in Hollywood and even tougher if you're a black actor. And, yes, folks need to work. But to quote a line from one of my favorite movies, "There's work at the post office."
As Octavia Spencer took the stage to accept her SAG award for best supporting actress in "The Help," her tears as well as those of her peers said a lot: this happens far too infrequently, and so we should celebrate. In 2012, that's unacceptable. Do these women deserve to be celebrated? Absolutely. Do they need to be celebrated for this? Absolutely not. Seventy-three years and here we are. That "open" door is more like a "revolving" one.