*With the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony airing this Sunday, February 26, all signs point toward a possible Oscar win for Octavia Spencer and/or Viola Davis for their performances in “The Help.”
The film is also among the nominees for Best Picture.
However, there’s been an influx of opinions and conflicted feelings about the film over the last several months. And what should be well-deserved admiration and celebration for the talent and artistry of these two phenomenal actresses, a firestorm of criticism and contempt for the film’s intentions, motivations, and racial and social implications has taken center stage. It almost bears a striking resemblance of the kind of controversy that overshadowed Halle Berry’s Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” and Denzel Washington’s Oscar win for “Training Day.” It’s probably safe to add Mo’Nique in there as well, for her role in “Precious.”
Regardless of the outstanding performances from these A-listers, their roles were perceived as nothing more than a premeditated plan of Hollywood—predominantly white and male—to reinforce black stereotypes and negative images of African Americans.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is also the charge that “white” Hollywood aggressively promotes films that advance the idea of white superiority and black inferiority. To be honest, I can’t say whether or not that’s true. It could be. However, I would have to argue that if, in fact, the assertions are true, we have to also consider the hundreds of films that meet that criteria but have never made it to the voting block of the Academy. Because we have more than our fair share of movies that portray African Americans as criminals, racially inferior, undignified, dysfunctional and immoral.
I’ll be the first to admit that inequity still exists within the entertainment industry, and more than a handful of films with black leading roles have been snubbed by the Academy for nominations and wins that should have happened (e.g., The Color Purple, What’s Love Got To Do With It, etc.). I would also be the first to admit that it is grossly unfair to expect all black actors, actresses and filmmakers to assume the role of activists within their art form. Granted, there have been actor-activists like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Paul Robeson, Sydney Poitier, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee and Danny Glover who have all used their craft to promote social justice and racial equality.
However, the list of actor-artist far outweighs the list of actor-activist—the latter occasionally using their craft to challenge injustice; while the former simply commits to portraying believable characters. They are solely devoted to the art and craft of acting and storytelling, and not to a social justice movement within Hollywood.
Viola Davis said it best, “We are not politicians. We are artists.” I would go a little further by saying they are not social commentators or political activists. Actors act. If they become preoccupied with protesting Hollywood’s secret “agenda,” then we miss out on the multitude of characters they are capable of bringing to life and a wide variety of stories that have yet to be told.
Hollywood does not have the salve to heal old racial wounds in America’s history. It is our job to do that. So whether “The Help” was half-told, racially biased, or reinforced the black mammy stereotype, it was a moving and compelling story about black domestic workers during the 1960s in the Deep South gaining the courage to speak out, and become empowered through their voices. It also demonstrated one white woman’s courage to break rank by confronting and exposing the inequities within her hometown at the risk of being ridiculed and rejected by her own race.
The film depicts more negative images of whites, and their false sense of superiority, entitlement and privilege, than it does of black domestic workers who could take care of multiple households and rear multiple children during a time of segregation, mistreatment and inequality.
We should also note that domestic workers, Pullman porters, shoe shine men, drivers, dishwashers, doormen, etc., were all jobs that African Americans were both willing to do with their heads held high. There was absolutely nothing undignified about these positions. And if we walked away from the film with nothing more than realizing how much we have endured and overcome with a black First Lady in the White House, and Oprah Winfrey as the richest woman in world, then this was a story with a message we needed.
We should not allow the outcry and advocacy against a Hollywood’s “agenda” to overshadow the exceptional acting, artistry and historical significance of “The Help,”
a drama that was merely a snapshot of a period in history, and not our entire history. We should never be ashamed or question the relevance of black history in America. It’s a cruel, bitter and offensive one, but it is our history comprised of countless untold stories.
Let us remain focused upon the art of good storytelling, and the universal themes that speak to our humanity, our differences, our complexities, our progress, and our ability to respond to our convictions, forgive others and unite.
We still have a long way to go, but we have to allow filmmakers, actors and actresses (black and white) the freedom and flexibility to be the best at what that do—telling stories. When it gets done well, then we should give them the recognition and honor they deserve.