This was blog was published on this site last year around this time, and, here we are, again…
On March 2, 2012 I wrote a blog about the complicated relationship between Black artists, Hollywood and the Academy Awards. I began with congratulations to Ms. Octavia Spencer for winning the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help (2011), then stated that the well deserved win might reinforce or fuel the controversy about what kind of Black images get 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 that was precisely the issue. James McBride described the tensions in his essay “On Being A Maid.” “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.”
At that time, I looked at the 10 years prior to the 2012 ceremony and indeed, most of the Academy Awards had gone to Black actors for roles that embodied 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)
The conversation was by no means an isolated one, the Hollywood Reporter chimed in with an article entitled – “So What’s On Your Mind, Spike Lee?” Among other topics, Lee discussed his 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 remain important questions, who decides what gets made and consequently celebrated with awards.
Ava DuVernay and her film Selma are at the center of the same conversation in these days and hours before the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. With this as encouragement, I am revisiting the matter to see what has changed, if anything. Bob Simon, in one of his last 60 Minutes segments on February 8, 2015, explored this topic in a piece entitled “Where Selma meets Hollywood.”
The Academy Awards have often been criticized for their lack of diversity and according to Brent Lang, who appeared in the same 60 Minutes segment, there are obvious reasons why. “The Academy voters are 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent Male, 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino.” Striking numbers indeed and then Lang goes on to state the obvious – “not reflective of American public or ticket buyers.” As part of his conversation with DuVernay, Simon asked the director how she felt about her film being excluded from the Best Director and Best Actor categories. Her response, “I never thought it would happen anyway.” A sad commentary but the truth is, this is being called the “whitest Academy Awards since 1998.”
I ended the 2012 piece saying that I still dream of a time when the desire for diversity of Black images belong to all of us, and am happy to say Selma fulfilled that dream. In the years since 2011, we have seen increasing diversity of Blackness on the screen, much of which reviews our history in America. We now have films like Evolution of a Criminal (2014) 12 Years a Slave (2013), Fruitvale Station (2013), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Red Hook Summer, (2012) Pariah (2011) and many more.