Black Heritage Month: Week 4–Black Progress

1 03 2012

So leap day came and went, and Black Heritage month has officially ended. But I wanted to conclude my series with some thoughts on Black Progress.

The word “Progress” among Blacks is a relative term, and its parameters change depending on who you talk to. If you talk to a black young man in the inner city, he would probably say that Blacks have made little progress, and racist systems still hold our people back. Talk to a different black young man from a middle class neighborhood, who has greater access and opportunities, and he might see it differently. I know I had a much different take on Black progress growing up in a home that (initially) was in a middle class neighborhood, than my older brothers and sisters who spent much of their formative years in an apartment in the Cabrini-Green housing project.

Black Progress is a lens which, dependent upon the filter, projects a different image.

Which brings me to a pivotal gauge of Black Progress: How Blacks are portrayed on screen.

The Helpa movie about Black maids in the 1960s telling their stories to a white writer, was the talk of 2011. But despite its critical and box-office success, the movie was not received with open arms by everyone: liberal film critics dismissed the movie as racist, and certain aspects of the Black community were also up in arms.

The consensus among the detractors was that this was simply a rehashing of old stereotypes of “maids and mammies”, in a pastiche, cookie-cutter way. The fact that it was adapted from a book by white author Kathryn Stockett, who modeled her fictional character on the Black maid who raised her, didn’t help matters either.

The Association of Black Women Historians went as far as penning “An Open Statement to Fans of The Help“, decrying the stereotypes, phony dialects, and the glossing over of serious issues suffered by Black domestics like sexual harassment and physical abuse. Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson of the Huffington Post even felt the need to counter what she felt was a one-dimensional portrayal of Black women during the time period in which The Help is based, penning an article and slideshow “Black Female Trailblazers in the time of ‘The Help’“.

This last piece is informative, and nicely written; but it summarily discounts the acts of defiance, and the trail forged by the maids portrayed in The Help. What they did and chose to do was as much a part of the struggle for freedom as a Rosa Parks or a Fannie Lou Hamer.

The New Republic (of all places) actually called critics on the carpet for dismissing the movie as racist, and talked about the subtle nuances, rich characters,  and good storytelling that gets missed when projects such as this are rejected on their face. “‘The Help’ isn’t Racist. It’s Critics Are.”

The movie continued to stay in the forefront of conversation, particularly since it received several nominations. Viola Davis, played the central character “Abileen”, and Octavia Spencer played the supporting role of “Minny”. Both were nominated for Best Actress and Supporting Actress nods, and Octavia Spencer won the prize.

I have loved Viola Davis‘s work for many years; so the fact that she was nominated for an Academy Award came as no surprise. I consider Viola to be in a league of her own, creating seminal work and characters that are multi-layered, diverse, and amazingly credible.

Granted she was amongst her strongest peers, particularly Meryl Streep, who is also in a league of her own, and known for doing transformational work to achieve a character. Seventeen nominations and three wins says volumes.

But I was still greatly disappointed that Viola did not take home the Best Actress prize. It was, as they say, Meryl’s year. Among certain black–and white–peers, was the sense that despite The Help’s amazing performances, and focused reflection on an aspect of history that gets little regard or mention any more, Viola’s performance was possibly passed over by the Academy simply because the character was a “stereotypical maid.”

Back in August of 2011, Octavia Spencer spoke with Chris Witherspoon of The Grio about her role in the movieYou can watch the video (linked below), but one quote from her interview that stood out was when Chris Witherspoon asked her how she felt about playing a “stereotypical maid”:

“What is a stereotype of a maid? I’d like to know. Is it because she’s wearing a gray uniform serving people? Our moms do that every day, they just don’t wear a uniform […]

“We all serve as women: we serve our husbands, we serve our children, we serve each other in a sisterhood. So, I get really pissed off because I think that it’s discounting a person’s value.

“Do you know the some of the doctors and lawyers that we somehow aspire to be on screen are probably, perhaps, the most one-dimensional characters you ever get to play? These women–men and women–whether they’re butlers or gardeners or whomever; just because it’s not your station in life, doesn’t mean that you get the right to discount it. So, if it’s a maid, and if it’s a maid with dimension, if it’s a person with redeeming qualities, hell yeah I want to play her, and I don’t have a problem playing a maid.”

Octavia Spencer defends her role in The Help

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first Black, and first woman to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the maid “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. As Blacks moved into more empowerment in the 60s and 70s, Hattie’s performances were criticized, demeaned, and not considered an image that reflected Black Progress. But Hattie herself said, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

The next time the Academy saw fit to convey this honor on a Black person was in 1963, when Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor statuette for his portrayal of an itinerant handyman in Lilies of the Field. Fast-forward to 1982, 19 years later, when Louis Gossett, Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for his turn as “Sergeant Emil Foley”, a role originally written for a white actor. Seven years later, in 1989, Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Gloryabout the first all-Black regiment during the Civil War.

Since 1989, nominations and actual wins became more consistent. Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress in 1990 for her portrayal of the medium “Oda Mae Brown” in Ghost. In 1996, Cuba Gooding, Jr. won Best Supporting for “Rod Tidwell” a failed football player who gets a resurrected career in Jerry Maguire.

Two-Thousand One was a high water mark: Denzel followed in Poitier’s footsteps, winning Best Actor for Training Day. Denzel played against type, taking on the role of a corrupt L.A. Police detective “Alonzo Harris”. That year was a two-fer, as Halle Berry took home the Best Actress prize for her performance of the brokenhearted widow “Leticia” in Monster’s Ball.  A mere three years later, Morgan Freeman won for his role as “Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupree” in Million Dollar Baby.  Then 2005, gave Jamie Foxx the Best Actor prize for Ray, as he powerfully enveloped the legendary Ray Charles. And the year 2006 saw Jennifer Hudson take home Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the talented, proud, and determined “Effie” in Dreamgirls.

Forest Whitaker won Best Actor in 2008 for The Last King of Scotland, channeling the crazed dictator Idi Amin.  Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for her frightening role of “Mary”, the abusive mother in Precious, and in 2011 Octavia Spencer picked up the same prize for her turn as “Minny”.

And this is only a list of Academy Awards for movie portrayals. There are countless television movies and series, from Roots to House of Payne that reflect Black images that have been lauded, applauded, and related to by audiences, as well as the award purveyors.

Among those Academy Award winners, we have a gamut of portrayals: dirty cop, military officer, washed-up football star, crazed world leader, medium, widow, boxing trainer, abusive mother, and maid. Why is one any greater than the other? They ALL represent the wealth of the Black experience–the wealth of life experiences of any race or color. Not to mention, we now have a substantial group of Black talent who can pick and choose not only the roles they wish to play, but make the movies they wish to see, and create the images they feel worthy to be portrayed on screen. Anyone heard of Spike Lee? John Singleton? Julie Dash? F. Gary Gray? And that’s just the short list.

As I said last week, framing the conversation and achievement within certain parameters does a disservice to those who fought, blazed trails, and worked just as hard to change the face of America in their corner of the world. They were as much a part of that Civil Rights Movement that transformed the nation, and they deserve rightful recognition.

Picking and choosing what Black images are an acceptable portrayal does the same thing as hunting for a “national black leader”. Freedom and equality is about looking at the full tapestry of the struggles and experiences, and these have no racial designation.

In discussing the role of “Abileen” in an interview with Urban Daily, Viola Davis challenged:

“I just feel like the most revolutionary thing that you could do is to humanize the Black woman. What I mean by that is there is no way, I am not going to believe this, that if Jodie Foster, or Meryl Streep, or any number of fabulous caucasian actresses were sitting in front of you–Emma Stone–is that you would–or anyone would ask them why they did a role if there was something about that character that they didn’t feel was politically correct. They would just look at the role. They would look at the complexities of it […]

I don’t want to play an image. I think the most revolutionary thing for me as an actress is just play the role. Whatever it is. However ugly it is, however politically incorrect it is. If I can do that for me, then I am sitting in the same seat as a Jodie Foster, or a Meryl Streep, or an Annette Benning.”

Hattie McDaniel did not have these options in 1939. In 2012, Viola Davis sets the tone and makes the choices. Is this not representative of Black Progress?

We would do well to clean the lens and adjust our filters.


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