By Daniella Gibbs Leger
I knew this day would come. As expected, the great Viola Davis has been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her starting role in The Help. And as expected, I am deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand, Viola has reached the rarified air of the very few black actresses to be nominated for the top role. A past best supporting actress nominee, Davis is one of the best working actresses out there, often doing so much with so little screen time. This is an honor she more than deserves.
But, and you knew there was one, she is nominated for playing a maid. Insert very large sigh. What is it with Hollywood and giving award nominations to black women who play a certain role? The maid, the abused woman, the whatever Halle Berry was in Monster’s Ball. There’s an underlying theme of victimhood that runs through all these wins. That’s not to take away anything from the actresses of the roles they played, but you have to wonder what affect this has on the way black women see themselves.
A new ground breaking study from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation released this week paints a complex picture of black women in America. Over all, they are happy with their lives, are concerned about racism and worry about providing a good life for their children. One area of concern was how black women were portrayed in media – both news and in pop culture. That’s not really surprising. Who would have thought that the ’80s and ’90s would be the heyday for portraying blacks in a variety of ways on both TV and the big screen? Movies ranging from Coming to America to Do the Right Thing to The Best Man showed a range of African American life that is missing now. As one of the survey respondents expresses in the Post, “black women are too often viewed as flashy, provocative, eye-catching – imagery that makes her cringe.”
One would think that as our country becomes more diverse, it would be easier to find diverse stories told in movies. But the exact opposite is happening. George Lucas has been vocal about how difficult it was to get Red Tails to theatres. And after the success of last year’s Jumping the Broom, you would think Hollywood would be clamoring to make more movies like that. Sadly, they are not. They are still most interested in finding the next comic book movie to make and maybe a Tyler Perry film here and there.
As I’ve written before, I have a complicated relationship with The Help. I thought it was a well-acted movie and was entertaining. The subject and substance ticked me off. But then Octavia Spencer’s Golden Globes acceptance speech was moving when she quoted Dr. King saying, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.” And for those reasons, I’m filled with mixed emotions about this nomination. Because for all of the problems with The Help, I have to acknowledge that it’s not like Hollywood is throwing leading roles to women of color on a regular basis, if at all. I hope Viola (and Octavia!) wins, but I also hope we get to see a future where black women get recognized for a greater variety roles.