The last time Tate Taylor worked with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer it was on The Help, a dream project Taylor brought to the big screen based on the book his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett wrote. The movie opened to great success, making over $100 million and eventually earning 4 Oscar nominations. All good so far. The film featured an array of women and African American actresses, the only film that year to represent communities other than white communities. But the thing about The Help was that it wasn’t acceptable to the black community (understandable; too many maids for too many generations on American film) and it wasn’t acceptable to the white community (educated white people chafe at the notion of ‘whitey saves the day’ movies). The film, and its director, became a lightning rod for politically correct eruptions all over the web.
When these kinds of things come up in the Oscar race, and they have for many years, it serves no other real purpose except to punish any white filmmaker for attempting to delve into black history. Norman Jewison, Steven Spielberg, Alan Parker – you name it. The message always devolved into: white people are not invited to tell those stories. Well okay, fine. But the problem is – white people control Hollywood and the box office, thus, stories about black characters simply did’t get told – and if they did and they made money everyone starts to feel bad about it sooner or later. Those stories don’t get told unless a black filmmaker manages to overcome the oppressive nature of white Hollywood to tell them: Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, etc. Spike Lee was marginalized for being an “angry black man” and was mostly shut out of the Oscar race. And films directed by people like Denzel Washington, for instance, were never deemed good enough by the (nearly unanimously white) critics. Deadlock.
Things have changed significantly since 2010, believe it or not, because now you have Ava DuVernay directing a movie about Martin Luther King. We just lived through a film that won Best Picture directed by Steve McQueen. But make no mistake about it, when the Weinstein Co. brought Fruitvale Station into the Oscar race it was shut out completely. Ditto The Butler. These are two films about black characters written and directed by black filmmakers. One was kind of embraced by the critics but the other ignored completely. By the time the Oscar race came around the critics were already tired of the predictability of 12 Years of Slave winning so they started turning their attention to Gravity and Her. That disdain for the obligation to vote for a film by a black director colored many months of last year’s race. Critics felt put upon for having to carry that load; after all, it wasn’t their fight.
Oppression is tricky business. It creeps up on you when you don’t even see it coming. Last year’s breakthrough of black filmmakers was very nearly overlooked by the people who write about film. They just didn’t give a shit. The Academy, on the other hand, and the Producers Guild recognized that they held progress and evolution in their hands and did the right thing. The critics? Not so much.
The Help did very well at the Screen Actors Guild but only won a single Oscar. The film was punished for not being “right” for either the black community or the white community, no matter how many great roles it contained, no matter that it brought Viola Davis very close to becoming only the second black Best Actress winner in Academy history. The critics and the Academy voters mostly want color to not be an issue – but it IS an issue, Blanche. It IS.
Hollywood listens to money and after the success of The Help, Taylor seems to have many opportunities to direct. Both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have gone on to do great work coming out of 2010, same goes for Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone.
The question now is, Taylor is bringing one of the only films about black characters (other than DuVernary’s) to the Oscar race. But Taylor is white telling that story. Will his film get hit as a result? When Taylor Hackford made Ray, Jamie Foxx ending up winning Best Actor and the film also took Sound. It was nominated for Picture, Director, Editing, Sound and Costume. No one seemed to care that Hackford was white, but probably because Ray, like Get On Up, might not deal directly with issues of race. Get On Up is about James Brown. It’s musical and fun and loud and probably won’t get hit by the politically correct bus.
It will be interesting to see how the film, and Taylor’s participation in it, will be received.
Get On Up will be released August 1 and reunited director Tate Taylor with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer from The Help. Taylor and Spencer were long time friends when they made The Help, which won Spencer an Oscar for Supporting Actress. Viola Davis was a near miss, deferring to Meryl Streep, who was winning her second leading actress Oscar.