The Help, The “Oscars” & The Questions (Part 2 of 2)

(Continued from March 3, 2012)

I contend, inviting the ire of some I am sure, the standing ovations were less about the performance of the actors and more about assuaging feelings of guilt associated with one of two things (or both): 1) the length of time it took Blacks to be recognized for their talent by the Academy and 2) the type of role they played for which they received the award engendered some guilt, pity or fear. Let’s look at the characters portrayed by the only four Black actresses or actors I have ever seen to receive standing ovations:

BEST ATRESS OR ACTOR

“Leticia Musgrove” (Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball – the wife of a convicted and executed murderer left to care for her morbidly obese son alone. She begins an affair with the white racist corrections officer, who with his son, assist in the execution of Leticia’s husband. A rough, explicit alcohol and pain induced sex scene ensues that borders on soft porn. While that is not the crux of the movie the scene is burned onto the retina of all who have seen it. – “Make me feel goooooooood!”“Leticia Musgrove”

“Homer Smith” (Sidney Poitier*) in Lilies of the Field – the ex G.I. and itinerant handyman who “carried his home on four wheels”; a “big, strong man” is “just what five lonely women were looking for … just the man to make their prayers and dreams come true” says the voiceover in the movie’s trailer. WTH?! Wait! My younger readers are probably thinking, how can Sidney Poitier win for this kind of smut?! Well, before you go too far down the road I’ve paved so nicely, these five women are nuns in need of a chapel in the Arizona desert. The movie highlights the tension (with tenderness and humor)between a Black passerby and the stubborn, Austrian mother superior, Mother Maria. Seeing this as a very idealistic, “hands across America”, “Kumbaya” kind of movie, the revolutionary in me could attack it but the Christian in me is bigger and can’t argue against a movie that uses the Sermon on the Mount as its foundation. – “I ain’t building no ‘shapel’! Not only am I ain’t buildin’ no ‘shapel’, I’m takin’ off!”“Homer Smith”

Detective “Alonzo Harris” (Denzel Washington) in Training Day – the maniacal sociopathic, highly decorated detective gone bad. A street tough, lying, manipulating, drug peddling, misogynistic, pimp-like thief. – “Myyy nigga!”, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” – “ You motherf**kers will be playing basketball in Pelican Bay when I get finished with you … I’m the man up in this piece … who the f**k do you think you’re f**king with? I’m the police, I run (ish) around here. You just live here. King Kong ain’t got (ish) on me!” – “Alonzo Harris”

“Ray Charles” (Jamie Foxx) in Ray – the biopic of a phenomenal American musician and entertainer who happened to be Black and blind. He battled his demons (infidelity and drug addiction) and the demons of this country (racism and segregation) while revolutionizing the world of music with a blend of gospel, jazz, rock and pop music. Charles even crossed over into country music. Biopics are demanding for actors as they are in so many scenes but Foxx masterfully yet believably came to life as Ray Charles. – “I’m gonna make it do what it do…” – Jamie Fox as “Ray Charles”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary Lee Johnston” (Mo’Nique) in Precious – the extremely abusive, unemployed, highly dysfunctional “monster” of a mother of the obese, illiterate, pregnant sixteen year old Precious, for whom the film is named. They live in Section 8 housing and deal with one conflict wrapped in another and covered by yet another. A grim, turbulent look at the lifestyle of a dysfunctional “family” that both Blacks and whites alike spend most of their time trying to ignore. While Precious doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset, I would guess we would have to consider Precious as somewhat triumphant. – “That was my f**kin’ man. That was my man and he wanted my daughter. And that’s why I hated her because it was my man who was supposed to be loving me, who was supposed to be making love to me and he was f**king my baby … and she made him leave … she made him go away.” – “Mary Lee Johnston”

“Minny Jackson” (Octavia Spencer) in The Help – quick witted, wise cracking opinionated maid, cook and caretaker for whites in the Jim Crow south during the Civil Rights era. Minny is the wife of a physically abusive, never seen husband, who has trouble holding jobs due to her uncontrollable outspokenness. – “You cookin’ white food, you taste it with a different spoon. They see you puttin’ the tastin’ spoon back in the pot, might as well throw it all out. Spoon too. And you use the same cup, same bowl, same plate everyday. And you put it up in the cabinet. Tell that white woman that’s where you gonna keep it from now on out. Don’t do that? See what happens.” –(speaking to her daughter, “Sugar”, before her first day on the job as a maid like her mother and grandmother before her). – “Minny Jackson” .

All of these performers were extremely convincing in their portrayals and all were deserving of their awards but was Training Day’s Denzel Washington really that much better than Malcolm X’s, Malcolm or The Hurricane’s, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? Or was the Academy more at ease awarding an Oscar for the portrayal of a flawed fictional character rather than a real life figure who helped to expose America’s flaws? Am I reading too much into all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the only place many in the white community would meet an “Alonzo Harris” would be in the movies. As real as the “Alonzo” is in some Black communities he is distant fiction in the white community and thus easily dismissed. Malcom X (later El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was real and he scared folk, especially white folk – and truth be told, some Black folk, too!

I know there were other Black actors who received Best Actor and Best Supporting actor awards but they didn’t receive standing ovations. However, the roles for which they won their award helps to prove my point:

  • “Pvt. Silas Trip” (Denzel Washington) in Glory – a cocky, ex-slave soldier
  • “Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry McGuire – a cocky jock
  • “Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ DuPris” (Morgan Freeman) in Million Dollar Baby – a not so cocky ex-jock.
  • “Idi Amin” (Forest Whitaker) in The Last King of Scotland – the notorious Ugandan dictator who reportedly murdered no less than 80,000 people.

Again, all well played parts and deserving of awards … but … do I really need to go on?

Let’s look at Monster’s Ball for a moment. Did the standing ovation make those white men feel better? The white men who had father’s like the one the late Peter Boyle portrayed in the movie? The white fathers that told their sons they weren’t men until they “split dark oak”? What about the men – Black and white – who secretly harbored less than noble thoughts about Halle Berry? Did they feel better when they stood and clapped? What about those who wished and hoped they could change places with Billy Bob Thornton just for that one scene? Was their guilt for finding some degree of pleasure, crouched somewhere deep and hidden, in that animalistic sexual display of “Leticia’s” pain somehow washed away?

Many southern whites, even The Help author, Kathryn Stockett were raised and nurtured by “Minnys”, “Aibileens” and even Hattie McDaniel’s, “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind. Was the ovation some way to say thank you? Hell, was the book itself a big “thank you” letter from Stockett to Demetrie, her family’s “Help” in Mississippi for generations? And were those who clapped so feverishly as so many additional signatures upon that letter?

Look, I may have only stirred up a lot of questions but for now, that’s all I have. One of the biggest questions about The Help was raised by Karina Longworth in her piece in the Village Voice: “Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist a**holes once they’ve grown to run their own households?” Or let’s take one more trip back to the Awards show when Chris Rock mentioned that a white voiceover actor can portray an Arabian prince but a Black voiceover actor is relegated to “donkeys or zebras”. Yes there was a small amount of nervous, uncomfortable laughter but the question still remains unanswered. Why is that? Are those fair questions? Why does this race thing perpetuate and replicate and, at times, reinvent itself? I think it’s because we won’t have the conversations and we continue to let the opportunities to have those conversations pass us by. We refuse to be uncomfortable for more than about two hours or whatever the average length of a feature film.

I don’t have the answers nor do I claim to … and neither do you. But we, you and I, do have the answers. In fact, we are the only ones who can solve the problems but we will never find solutions to issues we refuse to confront. I’m not looking to blame any one. I’m looking for peace … wanna help?

* – The multiple camera angles and views to which we have grown accustomed were not available to us in the Academy Awards show footage of 1963. I was unable to discern whether Sidney Poitier actually received a standing ovation but the applause sure made it sound as if he did. Since he was the first Black Actor to receive an Oscar, this writer finds it fitting that he be noted regardless.

The Help, The Oscars® & The Questions (Part 1 of 2)

So once again Oscar’s night has come and gone and I’m left with a couple of thoughts that I’d like to share. Since I am apparently hardwired to pick up on certain social vibes from these events it just makes sense to use this space to posit my thoughts.

These events always tend to make a statement about us all. Beneath the hype, glitz and glamour looms evidence of our values, politics and even the fragility of both. We are confronted with things we perhaps thought we believed and still other issues we may have found ourselves ignoring wholeheartedly.

All the buzz this season had been around the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help. I never thought The Help would win Best Picture; movies that deal with race issues –especially Black/White issues – no matter how much critical acclaim or box office success (also rare) never do. Don’t believe me? Check it out and get back to me. Now, let’s move on.

There was much discussion about the strong possibility of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, respectively, winning two of the big three entertainment awards (Screen Actor’s Guild, Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  Davis finished the run with only the SAG award for Best Actress while Spencer came away winning all three. She actually won four awards but since Americans tend to ignore what’s happening in other countries I figured it pointless to mention that she also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for the Best Supporting Actress category.

Those of you who know me or have read me before will not be surprised by this fact but I tend to notice things. Being the social/cultural critic and humorist I am, I feel it’s my duty to bring them to your attention. If you are the type who thinks entertainment is just entertainment, that politics and social critique ought not be comingled then you should probably stop reading. You will no doubt take offense to what I am about to suggest. If you are still reading then I will assume you are, to some degree, interested. Let me offer a couple observations. I don’t suggest these are negative or positive; merely observations … my observations.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Being a lover and student of comedy, I was excited to hear last September that Eddie Murphy was going to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards show. Imagine my surprise when, not three months later, he wasn’t going to host the show. Murphy pulled out after his friend and Tower Heist producer, Brett Ratner, resigned as the producer of the Academy Awards Show after making some pretty raunchy public remarks and topped it off with an anti-gay slur. It stands to reason that Murphy would step down since Ratner is the guy who bought him to the table; but, man, was I upset – relatively speaking, of course. Whatever the case, this highlights an example of politics or “political correctness” coming into play. Eddie Murphy, arguably a very capable host, through no fault of his own, is out and Billy Crystal, also a very capable host, is in. Mind you, I am not agreeing or disagreeing with any of this, I am just… observing.

Now let’s move to the undercurrent of tension surrounding The Help. I read some of the book and listened to most of it as I was often on the road between Washington, DC and Greensboro, NC during that time. Sidebar: If I can find a good unabridged audiobook, preferably read by the author, I can think of no more thought provoking a companion on long drives. If not read by the author, then a well-produced rendering with great voice actors is a wonderful experience. Such was the case with the audiobook version of The Help. In fact, I was first introduced to Octavia Spencer through the audiobook where she first embodied “Minny Jackson” (a well-deserved shout out goes to Bahni Turpin for her portrayal of “Aibileen Clark” on the audiobook). I found the story humorous, mildly disturbing, corny and oversimplified at times, deserving of being told yet entertaining throughout.

Never once did I think, “Why is a white woman telling this story?!” or “Who does she think she is?!” There were those who knocked the book for not being factual and a host of other things the author probably never set out to do. She set out to tell a fictional story her way, loosely based on factual events as a reference point, nestled in a turbulent time in America’s history. Something we all are at liberty to do should we so chose. Would we have felt better if Stockett had sided with the racist white women and told their story and justified their treatment of the domestic workers? Or how would we have felt if the story was ignored altogether? But I digress. Let’s get back to the Awards show.

And the Oscar goes to … Octavia Spencer”, said Christian Bale as he pointed to Ms. Spencer seated just below stage and to his right. A shocked Spencer covers her face with her hands and hugs and kisses cast mates on her way to the retrieve her Oscar. The crowd almost immediately erupts with applause … and … a standing ovation! For the best supporting actress?! Please know that I am taking nothing away from Ms. Spencer’s performance. She was masterful and I believed she was Minny but … a standing ovation for one of the earliest awards in the evening?! Why? Make your your seatbelt is securely fastened, I’m making a hard left turn here using a right-wing writer. I believe, in large part, white guilt is to blame. What is that you ask?

In the fifth chapter of his twenty year old, nationally best-selling book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, conservative author Shelby Steele gave name to a phenomenon most Blacks have experienced and many whites have exhibited – White Guilt. Essentially, Steele asserts that Black American politics is rooted in “challenging” whites or any white power structure with the assumption they are racist until proven otherwise. So-called Black leaders work to keep “the pressure on”, to keep white folk “on the hook” for all of the issues that hold Blacks at a disadvantage. That type of “pressure” causes whites – and to some extent our institutions –  to live under threat of being called or considered racist, thus personally attaching individuals to the shame of America’s cruel and racist past. The need to do, say, advocate for or promote anything to the contrary is driven by what Steele refers to as White Guilt. It can manifest in something as mundane as an extraordinary tip at a restaurant to something all-encompassing like political policy, i.e., the civil rights act of 1964 or even affirmative action programs, according to Steele.

So when people started standing up to join in the ovation, what white person would have wanted to have been caught sitting down when the whole friggin’ room was on their feet applauding and cheering for this little known Black actress from Alabama (Racism Headquarters during the Civil Rights era) who played a maid in Mississippi (Racism Headquarters II)? Spencer wasn’t the first Black to win best supporting actress. Hell, she wasn’t even the first to win Best Supporting Actress for playing a maid. Hattie McDaniel holds both those distinctions from her Oscar win in 1939 … and you know she didn’t get a standing ovation! Fast forward fifty one years to 1990; Whoopie Goldberg wins for best supporting actress – no standing ovation; Jennifer Hudson wins the for the same in 2006 followed by, my homegirl, Mo’Nique in 2009 and neither of them were met with such a rousing standing “o”.

Why not?

Because none of the films for which they won their Oscar had characters that had to suffer racist white people or institutions, directly, for much of the movie in the movie. So, I contend, Steele’s “White Guilt” got a holiday. The only other standing ovation for a Black actress was given to Halle Berry for her 2001 Best Actress win for Monster’s Ball. On that same night Denzel Washington won for Best Actor and as he said during his acceptance remarks the Academy got “two birds with one night”. The first ever Black actress in the Academy’s almost seventy-five year history to win Best Actress and only the second Black actor to win Best Actor? In the same night?! White Guilt was working overtime because they both got a standing ovation that night!

(Continued on March 13, 2012)