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.