Sunday night at the Golden Globes actress Octavia Spencer took home yet another Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Minnie Jackson, a maid in the South, in the film The Help. Although Spencer’s costar Viola Davis didn’t win the Best Actress award for her role in the same film, many feel she’s a lock for an Oscar.
While many celebrated Spencer’s win and the pair’s forthcoming Oscar nominations, others are wondering why Hollywood seems to only highlight black actresses for seemingly stereotypical roles.
In her article, “Spencer’s Win: Evidence of a Hollywood in Need of Help,” Dr. Nsenga K. Burton wonders when Hollywood’s obsession with boilerplate roles for black women will be a thing of the past.
It is the same fate that black actresses must fight against in Hollywood: the certainty of playing a maid, prostitute or mammy figure and then being celebrated for it. While Spencer’s performance in The Help was stellar, it is highly problematic that she is being lauded for playing the role of a maid 72 years after Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for playing one in Gone With the Wind.
To be clear, this is not a critique of Spencer or McDaniel or a class critique — both of my grandmothers worked as maids in the segregated South. This is a critique of a system — the Hollywood film industry — that has changed very little over the last 100 years in terms of the roles created for black actresses.
Dr. Burton points out that after the abolition of slavery it took countries like the U.S. and Brazil approximately 100 years to see real change, so perhaps it will take Hollywood just as long to finally see black actresses in the same light as their white counterparts.
With very few exceptions, the roles that won black actresses an Oscar–Hollywood’s highest honor–have come as a result of problematic roles. Halle Berry’s win for Monster’s Ball in which she played the widow of a convicted murder who falls into the arms of a white man rubbed many the wrong way, while Mo’nique’s portrayal of an abusive mother in the film Precious had some crying foul. While each of these women turned in haunting performances, it was the subject matter that caused many to question their wins.
Although there have been remarkable performances by black actresses throughout the years, many have gone unheralded. In 2011 alone several black actresses like Adepero Oduye (Pariah) and Nia Long (Mooz-lum) turned in critically acclaimed performances that did not fall into old stereotypes and yet were not recognized by the Academy. Instead, Davis and Spencer were praised for their portrayal of black maids in the segregated south.
While I think Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis deserve to be nominated for their performances, it would be nice to see a bit more diversity in the roles Hollywood chooses to promote.