Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Help?

At Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, Octavia Spencer received a standing ovation with her win as Best Supporting Actress in The Help. Ms. Spencer is clearly a gifted actress but, her role — as a white woman's maid — seems part of an all-too familiar history at the Academy Awards.

The first African American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, for her 1939 role as Mammy, a white woman's slave in Gone with the Wind. This was followed up by the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field, with Sidney Poitier playing a white woman's laborer, (He builds a church for German nuns), and 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, in which Morgan Freeman (and take a minute to think about his name), plays a white woman's chauffeur.

No wonder Idris Goodwin wrote these lines in "When Black Actors Win Oscars":
"Thank you, Academy. It's been a journey. I started as a mugger/rapist in a Dirty Harry film. Since then, my path has been paved with pimps, jesters, street hustlers, jive-talking con men. Needless to say, when I read Alfred's script, I jumped at the chance [to] drive the legendary Jessica Tandy around Georgia....This is for all the actors before me who suffered through humiliating roles as coons and servants. This Oscar goes to the bojangles, fetchits...I could feel their spirits on set. They lent me the strength to play this long-suffering slave...."

While it is true that other black actors have won Oscars (Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Louis Gossett, Denzel Washington and Mo'Nique) — 11 total out of the 332 acting awards conferred to all actors thus far -- the percentages are not high. Nor does the number of Latino actors (1): Rita Moreno in 1962, or the number of Asian-American actors (1): Haing Ngor in 1984 offer much encouragement to me.

The weighted percentages may stem from the composition of the Academy. According to the LA Times, as of 2012, 94% of Academy members are white. 77% are male.

Are you troubled by these figures? Do you see reason to believe that actors of color are being offered more — and more challenging — roles?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Romneys

After a lively class discussion regarding Wynton Marsalis' "Supercapitalism" and the idea of American society as a construction, I heard a fascinating piece on the radio about current Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney and his father, George, the former governor of Michigan.

While the younger Romney has recently received quite a bit of attention over his current tax rate (13.9%), it's instructive to consider why his rate is what it is, and how our government can often pick winners and losers simply by constructing policies, laws, and regulations that reward some Americans and shortchange others.

For example, although Mitt has publicly released one year of his tax returns, his father, in an effort to be completely transparent, released twelve years of records, giving us an insight on how tax policies change over time. I have to say I was a bit shocked to discover that George Romney paid anywhere from two to three times the tax rate of his son, topping out at 44% (back in 1963).

Why was this the case?

Be patient with me here. One reason is a difference in what is called the "top marginal tax rate". In the 1950s, the tax rate was as high as 91%, while by the Lyndon Johnson 1960s, it had dropped to 70%. By the 1970s, it was 50%, and under Reagan in the 1980s, it was set just under 30%.

Yet another reason has to do with how people earn their income. While most Americans draw their income from a paycheck, far fewer citizens (like Mitt Romney) earn money primarily via investments ("capital gains"). The latter source of income has also seen a major change in how it is taxed by the IRS. At one point in our history, regular income tax rates and capital gains tax rates were equal, but no longer: today, the latter is taxed at just half of the top marginal tax rate (15% vs 30%).

Are you still with me after all of that economic blather? Why does the government construct policies that reward some hard-working Americans over others? Does that seem democratic to you?