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?


Katie C. said...

Mr. O'Connor--an interesting post! I've actually posted something relatively similar on my own blog about Hattie McDaniel. These numbers absolutely trouble me. I still think that Hollywood is offering a certain type of role for actors of color. What studio execs need to realize is that someone like Angela Basset can play a mainstream lead just as well or even better than someone like Cameron Diaz or Katherine Heigl.

Emily R. said...

I agree with Katie, but what also surprised me from those statistics was that 77% are male. Thinking back to the award show, a majority of the films that were nominated or won had a male main character. We've been dealing with making women equal to men for years and years, and though it has come a long way, this just shows there's still more to be done. Though African American's rights have also improved, I think women's rights have improved more, showing that it'll take some time before more and more African American's have different roles in films aside from maids.

AbbeyR said...

I also agree with Emily's comment, "We've been dealing with making women equal to men for years and years, and though it has come a long way, this just shows there's still more to be done". In my business management class, we are learning about the glass ceiling theory. Women are receiving less money than men. Also, when looking for a tv tokenism example, I found that only two out of the eighteen shows I looked at had a female as a superior role.

Allison M. said...

I absolutely find it troubling that African Americans continue to be pushed in to belittling roles where they are serving to whites. What kind of message is that sending to society? When I looked in to this on my own, I found that only 4 African American women have ever won the Academy Award for "Best Supporting Actress". To me, this is shockingly low. Even more disturbing is that only 1 African American woman has ever won the award for "Best Actress." Having African American actresses way more often in the supporting role seems to me a way for films to seem fair and equal, while still having a white leading role. This is very similar to what we saw in the examples for TV Tokenism. The screen time is less, the award is less prestigious and the parts are many times playing subservient roles. However, the talent is equally as impressive. I think there is a major problem here.

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Anonymous said...

I also think that this is a very interesting post, and it is shocking to see some of the numbers showing how many people of color have won Oscars in the past. Yes, these numbers do trouble me, and I wonder why the are the way they are. As Allison said, "the talent is equally as impressive". But, these numbers are not simply a result of not recognizing or employing talent. As we have been discussing in class, media and producers are always targeting a specific audience, and they want their material to appeal to the demographic who is most likely to buy. Judging from the statistics of previous Oscar winners, one would infer that the target demographic here would be white males. But is it fair to cast and produce movies based only on the audience? Are we as consumers and US citizens supporting this stark imbalance shown in Mr. O'Connor's figures?
So far in my high school career, I have only read one (and anybody correct me if I'm wrong or missing any) book by an African American author. That book would be The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. It is funny that we point out how the majority of Oscars won by African American actors are for subservient roles, yet the only African American literature we have read at New Trier is the story of a black slave. Freshman year some of us read Persepolis by Iranian author Marjane Satrapi, and Colors of the Mountain by Chinese author Da Chen. Both are autobiographical coming-of-age-stories in which the the main character rises above challenges his or her race or social standing presents. Interestingly, we criticize TV Tokenism's principal that minorities must face minority "problems", but the only books we have read by minorities at New Trier are autobiographies in which the narrator faces such problems. Last year, I read one book by a white female author, and all of the other books were written by white males.
So, are we enforcing the societal trends that we find ourselves criticizing? Is it even possible to really change the figures and create more diversity throughout our society?

Betsy P said...

I agree that it’s troubling that only 4 African Americans have ever won “Best Supporting Actress”—though I wasn’t that surprised. As Jordan noted, since the majority of the film/ TV industry is controlled by whites, it makes sense that the Academy has been constructed to praise roles that appeal to the white majority.

In my process to answer your second question, I discovered a very interesting PBS interview with Tavis Smiley and Viola Davis/Octavia Spencer. Although Smiley praises their roles, during the interview Smiley states, “There’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid … [and] here we are all these years later … and I want you to win … but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.” To which Davis replied, “That very mindset … that a lot of African Americans have--is absolutely destroying the black artist.” Davis then explains: “I understand the argument with the film, and after a certain extent, I just kind of lose it…do I always have to be noble? If I always have to be noble in order for the African American community to celebrate my work… you are destroying me as an artist.”

Her response, (specifically, "do I always have to be noble?") made me see the question more clearly. With every role, actors of color face a challenge: how to make the role “noble" and go beyond the established (white) expectations. Because so few actors of color receive recognition, when they do, the actor is held to a much higher standard—and scrutiny—by the minority they are expected to represent. Actors of color are expected to detach themselves from the built-in expectations of their character and make their role “noble”—a challenge I find is layered with a deeper issue: the inability for actors of color to just be.

(Interview found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKIVUED0GE0)