February 28, 2012

Race At The Oscars

Those are happy tears!

Leading up to the Oscars over the weekend there seemed to be a lot of talk about Octavia Spencer, who played a maid in The Help, being nominated. Some people were angry not that she was nominated, but that she was nominated for what they considered to be a demeaning role. Their point was that black actors should have more varied roles, not just play maids and servants. But this movie was based on a book, which was written partially about the author's real life experiences in a certain time and place in history when wealthy white households employed poor black maids and servants.

This whole controversy made me wonder what would have made these naysayers happy. They were angry that a black woman was nominated for (and won!) a stereotypical role in a movie. But what about the alternatives?

Should she not have been nominated? Octavia played her character very well. I'm sure it wasn't an easy role but she shone. Her mother worked as a maid, and I think winning an Oscar for this role is a great way to pay tribute and acknowledge the history of her home state and region. Her skills deserved nomination and she deserved the award she won.

Should she not have played the role? Octavia chose the role. If she believed, as a black female actress, that a role as a maid to a wealthy white woman in the American South was demeaning she could have not auditioned, turned it down or made it clear she didn't want any part in it. But clearly she did, and that choice was hers alone.

Should the movie not have been made? OK, well the book was great and the movie made a wonderful story that many more people got to enjoy, so I'm all for this movie. I don't think there's anything wrong with making movies about recent time periods. Plus, it's not like everything's all fine and dandy today; we still have loads of discrimination in all sorts of forms, not the least of which is still race in this day and age.

Should the book not have been written? A good number of the naysayers never even read the book, for various reasons. I can see choosing to not read the book, but it does kind of take away from your ability to be vocal against the validity of it (yeah yeah yeah, I'm vocal against Twilight and I've never read them, but I've seen the movies, sort of, and I'm willing to acknowlede my hypocrisy), and especially your ability to knock the actress who played a character in the ensuing movie. The author grew up in the same place she wrote about, and part of her goal was to more effectively represent what life was like in that time and place, Jackson, Mississippi. While it may seem stereotypical to say that wealthy white families employed their poor black quasi-neighbors as diminished servants, it happened in real life, so why try to ignore it? Again, it's not like we're all that advanced as a society now. Plus, I'd be willing to bet the South has quite a bit more left over discrimination because of their history.

Should producers be focusing on providing black actors with more substantial roles? Sure. Of course. But have you seen the types of "black oriented" movies that are out there, or worse, the TV shows? They're incredibly stereotypical. Black thugs, fat funny guys eating fried chicken, being loud and shouting at each other at all times... how are these characters any better than a black maid? The bargain bin at Blockbuster has these movies, which should be an indication of their quality. The Help isn't reinforcing stereotypes, but plenty of other movies and TV shows are.

When it all comes down to it, Octavia was so happy and excited and beyond composure that she clutched her Oscar and cried onstage. The bottom line is she played a difficult role very, very well (and she held her character true to the book, but that's beside the point) and she deserved the recognition she got. I'd even say she stole a good portion of the movie and was a very significant supporting character. I'm sure she's still very happy she received the most prestigious award in her industry and is glad she chose the role. And I hope those who were knocking her role earlier will shut up about it.

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