'The Help' Oscar backlash: The roles aren't demeaning, Hollywood's lack of diversity is

On Tuesday morning, the racially-themed drama The Help scored four Academy Award nominations, including two for actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Along with the expected plaudits and praise from fans of the film — there was a notable backlash, particularly among some African-Americans who were quick to dismiss the Hollywood recognition, as well as the roles Davis and Spencer played, as demeaning.

While the majority of the reaction was positive, on theGrio’s own Facebook page, there was some emotionally heated vitriol directed at the Oscars, as well as at Davis and Spencer:

Why does it always have to be Maime [sic] roles? Ugh! No I’m not excited at all. Hell Angela Basset should have been nominated and won for her role as Tina Turner.

Angela Bassett actually was nominated for her performance in What’s Love Got to Do With It, but that’s neither here nor there…

Why is it that black men and women have to be some sort of characters to be nominated? Denzel in Training Day, Halle in Monster’s Ball and Jamie Foxx as the drug addicted womaninzing [sic] Ray Charles. While I wish Ms. Davis the best it is pretty insulting.

It seems beyond narrow-minded to reduce the legacy of a musical genius like Ray Charles to drug addiction and philandering, but again I digress…

Figures. Mammies, thugs and hoes will always get noms at the white washed Oscars. At least she wont have to come through the back like Hattie did. SMDH

I think you get the idea. In some circles, The Help getting recognized is almost akin to a best picture citation for Birth of a Nation — and I hardly think that seems reasonable.

First off all, I believe the integrity and intelligence of Davis and Spencer as women and actresses is without question. Davis’ nomination is especially historic, as she is only the second black woman in history to receive more than one Oscar nomination and she is only the third black woman in the past decade to be so honored.

theGrio slideshow: The most memorable African-American Oscar moments

We may roll our eyes and dismiss the Oscars as mere pageantry and Hollywood excess — but even the most serious cinephile accepts that they are the most prestigious honor the film industry awards (the votes are cast by actors, writers, technicians and other craftspeople). And acceptance in one of America’s most powerful businesses, one with such incredible influence over the world’s culture, is important to many people of color.

Despite considerable strides, African-American nominees are still fairly rare, so they are held up to considerably higher scrutiny than the average white nominee. That said, some blacks overlook the kinds of roles that are usually honored at the Academy Awards regardless of race.

In just the last 20 years, white performers have won major acting Oscars for playing serial killers (Anthony Hopkins, Charlize Theron), maniacs (Daniel Day-Lewis, the late Heath Ledger) and Nazis (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet), just to name a few choice roles. Few would claim that Hannibal Lecter or the Joker are a reflection of their performer’s race, they are simply incredible roles that those actors played to perfection.
And yet, Denzel Washington can portray one of the most unforgettable villains in recent film history in Training Day and he is accused of “cooning.” Was Training Day his finest role? Of course not. I am sure even Washington would admit that his performances in Malcolm X and The Hurricane were worthier of the best actor award. But the Academy Awards have a long history of awarding actors when they’re due (see Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman instead of say, The Godfather).

As for Halle Berry’s polarizing performance in Monster’s Ball, some could argue that this was not the most flattering of roles. (Angela Bassett certainly did.) But in Berry’s defense her Oscar-winning role came in the midst of a trend where glamorous actresses (regardless of race) were earning raves for supposedly “uglying up” for a part (see Nicole Kidman in The Hours or Theron in Monster). This smacks of sexism more than racism, if you ask me.

Still, Oscar watchers of color insist there is a conspiracy afoot, and to them I say: for every Mo’Nique in Precious there is an Oscar-winning performance like Morgan Freeman’s in Million Dollar Baby, which is dignified and virtually unassailable. Jennifer Hudson’s Dreamgirls performance or similarly Washington’s supporting win in Glory also can’t be easily painted with the “stereotypical” brush.

This also doesn’t fully take into account some of the inspiring performances that were nominated but failed to win, such as Don Cheadle’s lead role in Hotel Rwanda or Will Smith’s in The Pursuit of Happyness, which bolster more positive images of African-Americans.

This isn’t to say one role is better than another. These roles reflect a spectrum of the African-American experience. There are morally flawed African-Americans (like Terrence Howard’s character in Hustle & Flow) as well as heroes like Morgan Freeman’s Oscar-nominated interpretation of Nelson Mandela in Invictus.

Nevertheless, the reality is that while Oscar rarely rewards quiet dignity over parts that push the envelope, in the 80-plus years the Oscars have been in existence, only a small number of black men and women have been included. So African-Americans are understandably cynical about the ceremony and the films it chooses to recognize.

Most of the films nominated for best picture this year don’t feature a single prominent African-American character. And besides The Help there are no films with substantial African-American roles being recognized. This is why the achievements of Davis and Spencer are significant regardless of what one may think of the quality of their film.

Yes, both actresses play maids, and for many African-Americans that’s an automatic turn-off. But we can’t be ostriches and bury our heads in the sand when it comes to our own history. The overwhelming majority of working black women in the 1960s were domestics. Are The Help’s haters arguing that their experience is undeserving of portrayal in a feature film?

Whether or not The Help accurately depicts the experiences of 60s-era maids should be and has been hotly debated, but can anyone seriously say that Davis and Spencer demeaned themselves by taking on these parts? Playing a maid doesn’t make you a de facto mammy.

In an interview with theGrio, Spencer gave an impassioned defense of her role in the film:

These women did this because they wanted to better their families’ lives and make sure their children didn’t have to serve… some of the doctors and lawyers we somehow aspire to be onscreen are probably perhaps some of the most one-dimensional characters you ever get to play. These men and women, whether they’re butlers, gardeners or whoever — just because it’s not your station in life, that doesn’t mean you get to discount it. So, if it’s a maid and it’s a maid with dimension. If it’s a person with redeeming qualities. Hell yeah, I’ll play her!

With the number of films with black themes and black casts rapidly becoming “extinct,” it’s sometimes difficult to judge each film and role on its merits — but we must. We expect that from our white peers and we should hold ourselves that same standard.

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard