Despite torrents of debate among African-Americans over the merits of the segregation-era movie “The Help,” most still hoped that Viola Davis, who plays a maid, would become just the second black winner of the best actress Oscar.
And so there was widespread disappointment when Davis lost the Academy Award to Meryl Streep on Sunday night. Still, ambivalence tinged the reaction: Besides regret that the ranks of black Oscar winners remained small, many felt relief that a role viewed as stereotypical was not honored.
“Oohhhhhhhnnnnnnooooooooooooooo,” wailed Robinne Lee on Twitter.
Lee, a black actress who has appeared in films such as “Seven Pounds” and “Hotel for Dogs,” said in an interview that Streep embodies excellence and deserved to win. “But Viola had so much hype this year, and there was so much excitement, and it conjured up so much controversy in the black community about this role … so (the loss) was disappointing.”
Yet Lee felt a mix of emotions, since she is eager to see more diverse movie casts in a wider variety of roles. Adding to the conundrum was the best supporting actress victory of Octavia Spencer, who played another maid in “The Help.”
Prior to Sunday, only 13 black actors had won Hollywood’s highest honor in the Oscars’ 84-year history. Only Halle Berry had been chosen best actress, for playing a wounded soul who finds solace in the arms of a white man in “Monster’s Ball.”
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar, for a supporting role as a maid called Mammy in the Dixie-glorifying “Gone With the Wind.” Since then, a high percentage of black Oscar nominees and winners have played characters such as slaves, African despots, welfare recipients, dysfunctional mothers, drug-addicted musicians or drug-dealing cops.
With Spencer’s award, maid roles are responsible for two of the six Oscars won by black actresses. Streep, meanwhile, earned the third Oscar of her transcendent career for playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Which made Lee wonder: “How inspiring would it be if we could be nominated in roles where we are playing kings, queens, politicians, writers, artists, dancers … we could soar.”
The debate over “The Help” made Hollywood’s racial issues a recurring theme of Oscar night.
During a skit about what actors were thinking, host Billy Crystal imagined this for Davis: “I want to thank my writer and director for creating the role of a strong black woman that wasn’t played by Tyler Perry.” He also quipped: “When I came out of `The Help’ I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.”
Presenting an animation award, Chris Rock said the voice genre allowed fat women to play skinny or a wimp to play a gladiator. “And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can’t play white, oh my God!”
Rock’s observation resonated with Monika Brooks, a diversity consultant and self-described “movie dork.”
“The problem is not that Davis played a maid,” she said. “The problem is there’s not more black people in really good roles.”
Few, if any, black Hollywood executives have the power to “green-light” a film for production. Of the 5,765 people who vote on the Oscars, nearly 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male, according to a new Los Angeles Times study. The median voter age is 62.
That’s why Brooks was not surprised by “The Help” being made or crestfallen when Davis didn’t win: “Whoever writes the checks writes the rules.”
As the Oscars approached, “The Help” was lambasted in some quarters of the black community. Many perceived it as another instance of black characters being “saved” by whites, or of serving only as vehicles to improve and enlighten white lives.
“Think of Will Smith in `The Legend of Bagger Vance,’ Michael Clarke Duncan in `The Green Mile,’ Anthony Mackie in `The Adjustment Bureau’ and Sir Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus in `The Matrix,’” said Toure, the cultural commentator who uses just one name, writing in Time.
Wrote the screenwriter and author James McBride: “It’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens.”
Watching “The Help” was torture for Toure. But as a black man, he was disappointed that Davis lost.
“I hated the film but respect Viola’s immense talent,” he said in an interview. “I wanted her to get recognition for her talent and to get the power that comes with winning.”
The Oakland activist and journalist Davey D said it seemed like a contradiction for critics to slam the film but support Davis and Spencer.
“Y’all should be happy the maid flick didn’t win,” he tweeted. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to “The Artist.”
“The fear was Viola winning or `The Help’ winning would’ve validated keeping alive an image that many black folks found stereotypical, inaccurate and overall problematic,” he said in an interview. “A win was seen as a setback.”
Not for Barbara Young, who has worked for 17 years as a domestic worker and is an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Watching the film, Young cried when Davis’ character was separated from a white child – she had endured several such partings in real life.
Young traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an Oscar viewing party organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. When Streep’s name was called instead of Davis’, the room of 50 people let out a huge groan.
“It was a very sad situation in that room,” said Young, an immigrant from Barbados. “I was disappointed, but I was very grateful to the producers of the movie for bringing domestic work to the forefront.”
She saw a simple reason for the criticism of the maid role: “It’s not recognized as real work.”
Davis certainly knows that it’s real work – her mother and grandmother both toiled as maids.
During Oscar season, Davis consistently advocated for a wider range of black roles. “I’ve played a lot of drug addicts,” she said in an interview with Terry Gross of NPR.
And she told Tavis Smiley that black people who are ambivalent about “The Help” have a mindset that is “absolutely destroying the black artist,” because it forces black actors to water down their performances – to avoid character flaws that might offend oversensitive black audiences.
“The black artist cannot live in the place – in a revisionist place,” Davis told Smiley. “The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy.”