(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.