In My Opinion
Is Octavia Spencer's Oscar Win a Win for Black Women?
Octavia Spencer had an emotional Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Southern maid Minny Jackson in The Help. It was a touching moment. But was it a step ahead for black women winning Oscars or a step behind in our big screen portrayal?
Truth be told, I've been biting my tongue about The Help, for more than a few reasons. But let me start off saying that I have a real problem with whitewashed historical films and especially, those films that always portray blacks as being saved by well-meaning white folks. You know, "The Blind Side", "Dangerous Minds," "Freedom Writers," "The Soloist"... you get the idea.
Attention Hollywood: there are thousands of equally inspirational stories of African Americans saving themselves (gasp!) or white people too (double gasp!), but those don't get told because they don't fit into your stereotype of who we are.
But I digress. Slightly.
The historical truth is that during the Jim Crow-era during which “The Help” transpires, African Americans across Mississippi were registering to vote and agitating for political change. In other words, they were helping themselves--something completely missing from The Help. In fact, as novelist, Martha Southgate said, when it came to the civil rights movement, white people were technically, the help--assisting a black-led movement. But somehow, many Hollywood portrayals flip this. Repeatedly.
Meanwhile, I find it equally troubling that black women often win for playing stereotypical, and often negative roles. Didn't Monique win an Oscar for playing an abusive mother? Didn't Halle win for playing an alcoholic and negligent parent? And with all of Denzel Washington's amazing performances, he wins an Oscar for playing a dishonest cop in Training Day? Does anyone else see a pattern here?
And while The Help received a lot of criticism for its portrayal of black maids--that didn't necessarily bother me. Black people have a strong and proud history of doing domestic work. My great-grandmother worked as a domestic. It was honest work. And I feel that Aibileen and Minny were portrayed as courageous, brilliant, smart, and loving women who happened to wear a uniform in their work. We don't see these women scrubbing toilets.
In fact, after the Oscars Spencer said that she felt she was accepting the Oscar on the part of those who lived through the civil rights struggle.
I get that.
“I’m a benefactor of all of the riches that the real-life Minnys, Aibileens and Celias basically reaped,” said Spencer.
And that is the truth. Every black woman owes something to all the black people who struggled for civil rights, in big ways and small, and even those who did so wearing a maid's uniform.
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