Octavia Spencer on white filmmakers directing black films: ‘It’s a Catch-22 really’
Her character enters the screen for the first time rocking a flamboyant red dress, blue streaks in her hair, and singing Radiohead.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a side of Octavia Spencer the big screen has yet to reveal, and a chance for the actress to break free of convention.
In her latest film, Paradise, the 43-year-old star defies stereotype by taking on something of a postmodern intellectual in the character of Loray, a woman comfortable in her own skin but not to be defined by it either.
“She is an educated hipster with a point of view, and we get to see that point of view played out on screen,” Spencer tells theGrio. “It’s an archetype I definitely haven’t played.”
The truth of the ‘Magical Negro’
Over the past couple years, the Oscar winner has come into her own as an actress traversing the various ideals of black women in the American diaspora.
A maid in the ’60s, mother of the slain Oscar Grant, and soon-to-be the aunt of legendary singer James Brown, the actress breathes life into newfound African-American stories that Hollywood has finally allowed on the big screen.
With Paradise, she leaves behind biopic or historical trends to play someone unique. A woman of the present, with multiplicity and range, and a person who illustrates what Spencer calls the “sisterhood of women.”
The actress believes it’s a refreshing and realistic take on blackness not often encountered in the movies.
“I don’t think there is one way that black people are versus one way that Asians are, [etc.] I think it’s just how things are depicted that it becomes the norm,” Spencer says. “I have the most eclectic, wackiest group of friends that there are, and that, I think, for the most part is most of the people I know. There’s just not one way of being.”
Spencer’s character serves as a pseudo-mentor for Lamb, a newly liberated, small-town Christian girl played by Julianne Hough, who is navigating her first expedition to Vegas.
The two join Russell Brand’s more outlandish character William for one night of drinking, partying and a sort of unraveling as each considers the confines of their identity.
Though in real life, Spencer doesn’t presume to be the one with valuable insight – the “Magical Negro” as the film calls it – she can relate in ways.
“I used to get that ‘Why do black people…?’ and I’m like ‘Hey, I’m one black person! I can’t speak for all black people!’” She recalls. “We’re getting away from that now because young people are exposed to so much more via the Internet, via interaction with each other.”
Should white directors be able to make black films? Spencer says yes.
To a certain extent, Spencer inhabits the past and present of Hollywood, playing established, iconic and unprecedented roles, and to the praise of industry elites and moviegoers.
Her forthcoming part in the highly anticipated James Brown biopic Get on Up, directed by The Help filmmaker Tate Taylor, again brings her to the forefront of a significant African-American story earning a place in cinematic interpretation.
Filmmaker John Singleton recently wrote a strong criticism in The Hollywood Reporter of white directors like Taylor taking on black movies. He called the scenario a “troubling trend,” and questioned whether the success of white-helmed African-American tales hurts black filmmakers and takes away from the movies’ authenticity.
Singleton mentions The Help specifically along with Get on Up, a project in development for years and originally tied to Spike Lee.
In 2006, Lee wrote the first edition of the screenplay and was attached to direct it. The production eventually shifted to Taylor, who is white.
Similarly, Lee was unable to get his Jackie Robinson biopic off the ground, meanwhile 42, directed by white filmmaker Brian Helgeland, was a commercial success.
As a lead in some of these cross-pollinated productions, as well as movies like Fruitvale Station, Spencer doesn’t believe the formula needs to be so strict.
She disagrees with Singleton’s code of thought, yet acknowledges a different issue at hand.
“Black directors don’t get the funding for their films,” she comments. “That’s the problem, not that white directors are telling these stories. It’s a Catch-22 really.”
“Do I feel that white directors have to tell only white stories? No. Do I feel that black filmmakers should only tell stories about black people? No,” she continues. “If we say that, then that means Asian people cannot write about anybody but Asians. I don’t think a woman should only write about women…I think you, as an artist, you are driven by what compels you to tell that story.”
Spencer doesn’t want to be put ‘in a box’
To Singleton’s other point, Spencer admits there may be a level of understanding a director has if he finds himself more intrinsically tied to the narrative, but that can be circumstantial.
“If you’re a black director and the protagonist of your story happens to be black, if you have the same background, then you might have a better insight to that story,” she comments. “But I don’t think it lessens the impact of the story or is valued more if a person is of the same race or the same gender.”
“[Singleton] is going to put everybody in a box,” she adds.
All attention will soon turn to Get on Up, for which Spencer with reunite with her The Help co-star Viola Davis.
Davis told People she was embarking on a diet to prepare for her part as Brown’s mother, Susie.
On the other hand, Spencer insists she won’t be doing any major lifestyle changes beforehand to prime for the job other than speaking with the family.
“Let me just put it to you this way: I am playing his aunt that ran a brothel,” she laughs. “I’m not going to a brothel to get prepared.”
Paradise, written and directed by Diablo Cody, opens in theaters Friday.
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia