It’s like a broken record isn’t it? Pretty much every year an African American or two is up for an Academy Award, and the debate of rewarding stereotypes is unearthed. The truth is that I love witnessing a talented actor get his/her due but if it’s for portraying characters that serve to perpetuate the notion of the Black community as full of either ‘the subservient’ or ‘the morally reprehensible’ – I simply can’t get behind it – period.
I don’t regard the Academy Awards because in my view, it not only epitomizes, but also glorifies the same archaic social structure that supports the distortion of African American culture in a two-pronged approach:
- 1. Tainting the experience of African American acknowledgment by nominating those who’ve characterized an oversimplified image of a negative variety.
- 2. Sealing the deal by bestowing those Blactors who (demean themselves, their culture and) by accurately portraying said stereotype with the original American idol – a shiny gold statue known as the Oscar.
Insults & Accolades
One of the few things Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy/Million Dollar Baby), Denzel Washington (Training Day), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) and Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) and now Mo’Nique for her stirring role in Precious have in common is not their theatrical expertise but the honor they received for either playing a role that upholds one of two long held stereotypes: The happy/helpful house negro type who exists to aid in the ultimate well-being of the white lead character; or the mainstream’s seemingly favorite image of the African American as enraged, corrupt, ignorant, uneducated, cruel, indignant – a one-dimensional heathen worthy of being oppressed. Stories that recognize us as anything else go widely ignored by Hollywood and that rigid institution called the Academy.
The Oscars & The Cost of Success
This year it’s the nomination of Gabby Sibide and Best Supporting Actress award for Mo’Nique (a habitual portrayer of stereotypical Black women) for their roles in the film Precious that are the centerpiece of the long-held debate. The question is not whether it is a powerful movie brought to life by a team of gifted performers – or whether it’s worthy of praise – it’s the absence of multifaceted on-screen representation as opposed to the repetitive stagnant themes used to project the Black experience.
Esteemed film historian Donald Bogle hit the nail on the head when he stated, “African Americans have the impression that the Academy honors only a certain kind of black in a certain kind of role. Why does Sidney Poitier win for Lilies of the Field (as a carpenter who builds a church for white nuns) and not for Raisin in the Sun (as the anguished son steering his family to new opportunities)?”
The same could be said for Denzel’s win for Training Day rather than The Hurricane, or my personal pet peeve – Don Cheadles getting snubbed for his part in Hotel Rwanda.
Bogle goes on to say that “I think one of the problems with Precious and Mo’Nique’s character is not that we get a view of the monstrous mother, but that African Americans think [that] the white audience thinks she is representative of blacks.”
Honestly, I’ve learned that what ‘they’ think is immaterial. It’s how we view ourselves as a community that most concerns me.
Lastly Bogle says, “When you see yourself up there on the big screen and repeatedly are misrepresented or not fully represented, you leave these movies feeling conflicted, cheated, and disappointed.”
Hollywood Is In The Business Of Entertainment, Not Enlightenment
For the Blactor, powerful performances shouldn’t be relegated to those of a stereotypical nature. The fact is that we are not a culture defined by a perpetual downtrodden, scandalous or servile existence, whether Hollywood recognizes it or not. In the end, The Academy Awards reflects the current social climate in which we live. The scarcity of African American life on screen has a direct relationship to the state of inequality of our daily experience where our simple yet complex humanity goes widely ignored, misunderstood and disrespected.