Congratulations to Ms. Octavia Spencer for winning the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help (2011). I thoroughly enjoyed her on screen passion, humor and audacity. Her irreverence shimmered like glitter, her rage took on an artistic flair, and the relationship she formed with another "outsider" in the film was telling of her humanity beyond the boundaries of race so clearly defined and articulated in the film.
This week's Oscar win for Spencer, however, will no doubt reinforce and fuel the controversy about what kind of black images get supported and celebrated in Hollywood. Ms. Spencer's character, Minny Jackson, was as spunky, fearless, and charming as Hattie McDaniel's Mammy was in Gone With the Wind (1939), but therein lies the issue. James McBride articulated the problem in his essay "On Being A Maid" in this way: "On Jan. 24 President Obama, our first African American president, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role -- as a maid, and a slave maid at that -- winning the Oscar in the best supporting actress category on Feb. 29, 1940."
The truth is that for the past 10 years most of the Academy Awards that have gone to black actors were for roles that embody what some may call "nostalgic" views of blackness:
-Halle Berry for Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball (2001)
-Denzel Washington for Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2002)
-Jaime Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004)
-Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006)
-Mo'Nique for Mary Lee Johnston in Precious (2009)
-Octavia Spencer for Minny Jackson in The Help (2011)
So, where is The Help for black filmmakers in Hollywood?
This conversation is by no means new and took place most recently in the Hollywood Reporter in an article entitled: "So What's On Your Mind, Spike Lee?" Among other topics, Lee discussed his recent difficulty getting films made, asking, "Where are the people of color? That's what it comes down to. How many people, when they have those meetings and vote on what movies get made, how many people of color are in those meetings?" These are indeed important questions at a time when what was called "African American Cinema" some years ago has all but disappeared. I hosted a part of a conversation on this same topic last November 2011 at The Museum of The Moving Image where notables such as Richard Wesley, Warrington Hudlin, Nelson George, John Singleton and Matty Rich examined where we were on the "20th Anniversary of the New Wave of Black Cinema." What was disclosed at that gathering is exactly what Lee echoed in his interview: "I think there have been some improvements and some steps taken back. But overall, the variety of films being offered to African-American audiences is not where it was 10, 15 years ago. It's very narrow."
The truth is that the range of black characters in American cinema has indeed narrowed again for audiences in general. I still dream, however, of a time when the desire for diversity of black images belong to all of us, black and white. I still dream of a time where we have many images of African Americans to chose from, images that come from black and white directors. I still dream...