Whenever I interview Davey D, he always causes problems. He thinks on many levels, so instead of giving me one simple statement that is easily quotable, his ideas connect to bigger and equally important issues. I'm usually forced to quote the first part of what he’s saying and leave out the deeper material.
That’s what happened on Oscar night. D was doing his thing on Twitter as usual, and we had some fun with the #HoodOscars hashtag. After Viola Davis lost Best Actress to Meryl Streep and “The Help” did not win Best Picture, D tweeted, “Y’all should be happy the maid flick didn’t win.”
This comment touched on a theme I had noticed of Oscar ambivalence among black folks. I emailed D and asked him to elaborate on his answer. He responded that before Davis was nominated for the Oscar, the criticism was flying from black commentators, but they started backpedaling when the nominations came down.
“The emphasis seemed to be on bashing the movie while praising the actress which still was problematic because had she won, her victory as well as her anticipated speech would've uplifted the movie,” Davey D said. “This was going to set off firestorms especially if we pointed out all those who initially slammed the movie and the actresses. It was also problematic because the fear was Viola winning or the Help winning would've validated keeping alive an image that many Black folks found stereotypical, inaccurate and overall problematic.
“Viola not winning ended all that speculation and for that Black critics should be happy since they were among the first to lambast the film. A win was seen as a set back. So guess what: Viola didn't win, and neither did the movie. End of story except…one of the most watched shows in Black households is ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta.’ We don't seem too hell-bent on shutting down that show or Bravo for putting it on. Not sure what stereotypes are worse…the ones folks felt existed in the Maid or the loud ghetto fab antics displayed each week in RHOA.”
Whoa. That “end of story except” was huge. Certainly there’s reason to discuss the nature of black roles offered and celebrated by Hollywood. If Davis had won, maid roles would have been responsible for three of the seven Oscars won by black actresses. That means something. Yet D’s question about why some black folks accept the Housewives and shun “The Help” is profound.
Maybe it relates to the notion of servitude—something that remains a sore spot with many black folks. I recall sitting in my third grade class during a lesson about slavery, one of three black kids in the room, and feeling a deep and intense sense of shame. This painful memory remains clear 35 years later. Servitude doesn’t sit well with us, still. But divorced from American history, the idea of being a servant can be seen much differently. To humbly and faithfully serve our family, employer, community, humanity—is there a station with more integrity, more dignity?
I watched “Gone With the Wind” for the first time before the Oscars, just to compare Hattie McDaniel’s role, which won the first black Oscar, to the roles that would win the last one. There is no comparison. The best example of this is the name of McDaniel’s character. She is called “Mammy.” Her actual name, or any detail of her actual life, is invisible. Thanks to Viola Davis’ talents, anyone who watched the help knows exactly who Abilene is. My mother observed that “The Help” is actually a strong rebuttal to “Gone With the Wind” and the latter’s theme of a wonderful southern civilization cruelly destroyed.
Thanks, Davey D, for showing that the “end of the story” is not always where we think it is.
There’s always so much more I wish I could fit into my stories. On my piece about how some black folks were torn over “The Help” on Oscar night, the biggest omission was Viola Davis’ hair.
This hair was a big deal. I watched the show and didn’t think twice about it. But almost everyone I interviewed mentioned it—how proud they were that she was rocking the natural for all the world to see. “I usually don’t get emotional during these events,” said Gil Robertson, head of the African American Film Critics Association. “But when she came out there naturally, I did. I think the message she sent to young African-American people, especially girls, it was so powerful. It was like, it’s time for us to embrace us.”
Since the Pam Grier era, has there been a black female movie star with anything close to an Afro?
I spoke with Robertson too late to include his comments in my story, but he had some valuable observations. Unlike those who were offended or angered by black women being depicted as maids, and these stories being presented through the lens of a white protagonist, Robertson had no problem with the images or story presented by “The Help.” He said, “The black community needs to move beyond this sensitivity that comes up as it relates to stories like this. The fact of the matter is, a great many of our grandmothers or even our parents had to support themselves as maids.”
Like others I interviewed, he noted that white people make almost all decisions in Hollywood about what films get made. He said that if black folks want to see different images than those that currently predominate, they need to support independent black cinema. “Hollywood is investing their capital and their resources to create images they want to see,” he said.
To be more precise, Hollywood makes movies they believe will make money. There are more white people in this country than black people. I don’t have any actual evidence that the following is true, but I have a feeling that people tend to watch movies starring people who look like themselves. I’m far from a typical or frequent movie watcher. But when I do want to see something, I usually will base my decision on the star is. I’ll automatically watch anything with Don Cheadle in it. If it’s Denzel or Will Smith, I’ll probably choose it. I can’t think of any other actors I respond to this way. I do like films by De Niro, Pacino, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep. Jack Black and Matt Damon are entertaining to me. The James Bond franchise is fun—I’m hoping Idris Elba gets a shot at 007. But none of these folks are an automatic “watch” like Cheadle, Denzel, or Will.
I avoid most TV series, but I confess to being semi-interested in that new show “Scandal,” simply because Kerry Washington is the star. Not that black folks are required for me to tune in. I’ve enjoyed a few episodes of "Parenthood," which my wife watches, and it has only one black character. I’ve seen every episode of “Mad Men,” which is lily white. That “Damages” show with Glenn Close was a) gripping, and b) devoid of black people.
So maybe some of the issue with Hollywood and black people is a numbers game. And that’s even before we get to overseas markets, DVD sales, Europe vs Africa, etc. Obviously there is a lot more to it than pure numbers, because there are few if any black people who can green-light a film. But the demographics of the audience is a factor.
“The Help” hit the sweet spot with two large demographics: women and black people.
I asked Robertson what he thought the moral of the story was with this film. Not the moral of the plot, but of what happened with the movie itself. There was controversy when the book dropped, the debate intensified when the movie came out (because more people watch movies than read books—a pity), and then we had the Oscar experience. What did this saga reveal?
He asked, “For America, or the black community?” Of course I responded, “Both.”
Robertson began his answer by saying that much of America thought Obama’s election would put an end to racial problems. (He was not the only person I interviewed who said this. Obama is part of many answers in many of my stories.) Then he said, “This movie provided an opportunity for a real and honest dialogue about race relations. This country has a really, really crazy history on race. It really is time that we came to terms with it.”
He noted that Jewish people in Hollywood (of which there are many) do not shy away from exploring the Holocaust on film, “but our community is always running away from these stories. Some of us have relatives who lived in this era. It’s not ancient history. It’s recent history.”
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com