It’s really hard, isn’t it, to defend, spend time on, invest any emotion on an institution that could continually, and repeatedly, up to and including this year, make such ridiculous choices when the better films are staring them right in the face. Blame the public too, blame the critics especially, and blame our human experience, which seems to like narratives separate. For all of our liberal talk, Hollywood has still not figured this whole racism thing out.
Two decades ago, racism played itself out uncomfortably at the Oscars, when a young filmmaker and upstart named Spike Lee, one of the best filmmakers working in and outside of Hollywood, released Do the Right Thing. It was by far one of the best, if not the best film of that year. However, Oscar, in all of his progressive glory, decided to nominate Do the Right Thing for only supporting actor for Danny Aiello, and screenplay for Lee. The Best Picture nominees that year were instead:
Driving Miss Daisy (9 nominations, won 4, director NOT nominated)
Born on the Fourth of July (8 nominations, won 2)
Dead Poets Society (4 nominations, won 1)
Field of Dreams (3 nominations, won 0)
My Left Foot (5 nominations, won 2)
But that year, unlike this year, people were willing to talk about it, get mad about it, even say something publicly about it.
Despite Roger Ebert’s championing him and the film, Do the Right Thing was shut out. The other directors that year? The winner, Born on the Fourth of July’s Oliver Stone, Crimes and Misdemeanor’ Woody Allen, Henry V’s Kenneth Branagh, My Left Foot’s Jim Sheridan and Dead Poets Society’s Peter Weir.
The other great films that were shut out that year:
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Enemies, A Love Story
Not only should Do the Right Thing have been nominated, but it should have WON. There isn’t a single film in the lineup that year that was even half as good. It was probably one of Oscar’s true low points, and turning points. Spike Lee would continue to make more serious films and they would become increasingly threatening. As his passion increased, his anger and distaste reached a fever pitch. Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Jungle Fever, Clockers – dazzling work, totally ignored by critics. He’s had somewhat more success as a documentarian, with his doc on Hurricane Katrina, and 4 Little Girls. How we don’t admire and appreciate him more is a baffling mystery. Perhaps because the white community has never quite gotten over his “angry black man” routine. But after that year, he mostly couldn’t get arrested where Oscar was concerned. Worse, the critics wouldn’t cut him a break. Something in me puckered when I began reading the reactions to Lee’s latest film showing up at Sundance. Many of these same people gave films by white filmmakers a total pass, even when those films were weak pablum. But because it’s Spike Lee, somehow the standards are impossibly high. When I think about black filmmakers that Oscar approves, it inevitably brings me back to Spike Lee and that year.
What is great about Lee as a filmmaker is that he was an exuberant, fearless storyteller. Even if he knew what the rules were he willingly broke them. He dared to treat his black characters as if they had a right to their own narrative, even if it didn’t fit in exactly with how the white audiences have long since become accustomed to. When he made She’s Gotta Have it it was controversial enough, but somehow it wasn’t threatening in the least. Lee was then known as the “black Woody Allen.” She’s Gotta Have it was about a beautiful black woman and her many lovers. But of course, she called the shots – she wasn’t going to allow herself to be defined as a slut — a character like that? Well let’s just say we see very few of them now. Hollywood had never seen anyone like Spike, that’s for sure.
When Halle Berry was nominated a decade ago, most people thought the Oscar was never, in a million years, going to be awarded to her for that role. Monster’s Ball wasn’t that good of a movie, for one thing. Berry was great in the part but the critics weren’t glomming on to her the way they had Sissy Spacek, who won the AFI film award for Best Actress, the Critics Choice award, the Golden Globe, the Los Angeles Film Critics award, the New York Film Critics award, and the Southeastern Film Critics award. Berry had won the National Board of Review before winning the Screen Actors Guild and then winning the Oscar. Her tearful acceptance speech, owning the history of the impossibility of such a thing happening, in the year 2000 no less, was called by some “overly dramatic.” One the hand, the Oscars mean nothing. On the other hand, they can mean everything. But what did it really mean for black actresses, that win?
It just so happened, by some freak occurrence — collective white guilt, mass hyesteria, covert conspiracy, whatever irrational rationalization you’ve heard — Denzel Washington also won that year, supplanting Russell Crowe, who turned in a career best performance in A Beautiful Mind, which also won Best Picture. Almost everyone in our little group grope of Oscar prognosticating had predicted either Halle Berry OR Denzel Washington. Because of Russell Crowe’s bizarre freak out at the BAFTAs, where he pinned a worker bee against a wall and threatened him for something, his chances of winning the Oscar — which is, let’s face it, a popularity contest before it is anything else — many prognosticators thought Washington would best Crowe but Spacek would still reign.
Spacek was still the favorite, despite having already won an Oscar, despite Oscar’s racist and disgraceful past — itself a reflection of Hollywood, itself a reflection of America at large. The vicious circle, the snake eating its own tail, the endless conundrum. The surface had been cracked open in the 1930s when Hattie McDaniel, forced to sit in the back of the theater, won her Oscar for Gone with the Wind, made her way to the stage and offered up gratitude for the statue. What would that win change for black actresses? Not a whole hell of a lot, my friends. It really wasn’t until the Denzel Washington and Halle Berry year that the Oscar voters started to think more consciously about their choices. That required digging down deep into their own deeply worn prejudices, fair or not, unconscious or on the surface — why was it that we naturally thought the white actors gave the “better” performances? Why weren’t there better parts for black actors? Isn’t the black story, and the Hispanic story, and the Asian story still the American story? Isn’t America a melting pot, after all? Even if the demographic of Hollywood is changing, the face of Oscar sure hadn’t, not until 2001.
What most people don’t realize when they start throwing The Help out into the Lion’s Den is that one of the reasons Driving Miss Daisy won was BECAUSE Do the Right Thing was snubbed so impossibly, and such weak fare chosen instead. So much so that Kim Basinger, dressed up in a gown designed by Prince, actually took to the Oscar stage to protest it. It was a very big deal. Choosing Driving Miss Daisy, despite not having a director attached, was their way of trying to weasel out of their predicament. They also picked Denzel Washington for Supporting for Glory. Didn’t work, though, because all that did was make them look even worse; Driving Miss Daisy is being trotted out now as a way of diminishing The Help by people who have absolutely no clue about Oscar history.
One misdeed begets another. And the score is never properly evened out. Even after they allegedly went overboard, many think, by awarding BOTH Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2001, what has changed for lead actress? Not a whole lot. Their white guilt is played out in the supporting categories.
Such is how the Oscar race is played, though. Here we are, in 2011, ten years after Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won, and we’re maybe close to seeing another black actress, only the second in 84 years of Oscar history to win, and yet the critics are still doing the same old song and dance. They’re still as unable to recognize the greatness not just in Davis’ performance, but in her overall contribution to Hollywood. There is very little difference between Viola Davis in The Help (which made around $160 million) and Sandra Bullock in the Blind Side (which made over $200 million). The only difference is Davis is BETTER. She has more of an array of emotion and shows more of herself than she ever has. Sandra Bullock, also with the misfortune of being up against Meryl Streep, is popular in Hollywood and played a likable character. So go on, Oscar, give it to Bullock and not to Davis.
Oscar voters, audiences and critics pretty much adhere to the white experience when it comes to choosing the “best” performances. For Sissy Spacek to have been winning for In the Bedroom when Halle Berry did not is an obvious example, but you’re seeing it this year, too, with barely any critics falling over themselves to award Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for their work, even though they earned rave reviews from all of them; when it comes to the awards, however, it’s the same shit, different day, isn’t it?
BUT, you’ll hear fans and critics protest, Sissy Spacek WAS better! Meryl Streep IS better! Michelle Williams IS better! And I have to wonder, is that really true? Or is it just a matter of perspective. Nostalgia, after all, is just a matter of who is doing the reminiscing. Surely the South of Mississippi from the perspective for Kathryn Stockett was vastly different from those of her own black maids, about whom she chose to pay homage in her book, The Help. Neither of them would probably look back on that era with fondness but one can’t help but note the difference. The Help does a good job illuminating those differences.
When I look back at Halle Berry, and a more recent black nominee, Gabby Sidibe, I kind of see more comfortable roles for black actresses – sexualized or abused, ghetto dwellers trying to better their lives. Sure, Oscar has a fondness for “saving” characters who come from challenging backgrounds; after all, how many of them felt like they were “saving” all of those poor Indian children in Slumdog Millionaire? But I see in Viola Davis’ Aibileen a less desperate, less needy, less “rescuable” black character. Why, well for starters, she’s the narrator here. She’s the one who comes to the realization about what her life is going to mean. On the one hand, yeah, it’s hard to swallow the the idea that it took a white writer to give her the opportunity to put her ideas into a book. And yeah, it sucks that the white writer has the opportunity to go to the New York and have a career while the black maids are stuck back in Jackson being maids and having to live with segregation and racism and all of the other unbearable truths about the South back then.
But isn’t it just possible that what white people are pissed about, maybe black people too, is that we can’t make it a better, more palatable, more “right” story? Isn’t that just more rescuing? More saving? In a white person’s fantasy, a black writer would have written The Help and none of them would have spoken in “that dialect” and there would be no white characters who got to live better lives and the black women wouldn’t be maids because they would be doctors and lawyers and teachers. Or the other truth they wanted to see, more painful realities about the civil rights era, less glossing over and romanticizing a time that was about dying, lynchings, protests. Oh, but it’s okay if it’s War Horse and Spielberg doing the glossing over. It’s okay if the other 90% of the films up for Best Picture tell cleaner, easier, less problematic white stories. Put a white male at the center of your movie and voilà, no controversy! Lots of Oscar nominations. Big box office. Why, because that is what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.”
Step outside that realm, try to tell a story about black characters or women, or immigrants and suddenly, political correctness takes hold and everything has to be WHITE RIGHT. It also has to be right according to the black community and the women’s community and the Hispanic community. If it isn’t WHITE RIGHT enough, god help it. It might make $165 million at the box office and it might be beloved by people everywhere but you won’t see the (mostly white, let’s face it) critics glomming onto it the way they did, oh, say In the Bedroom.
This is a catch-22, you see, because since Halle Berry has won, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities for black actresses — they don’t get the scripts because the scripts don’t get written. Even when they’re WHITE RIGHT, they’re then not hip enough, or good enough – like Malcolm X, like The Hurricane, like Do the Right Thing, like Antwone Fisher or The Great Debaters. Sure, Denzel is just fine as the actor — but step off, son, as a director — he’ll never join the club. Lee Daniels managed to become the first and only black director to ever be nominated for a DGA award and frankly that in itself is a miracle.
Shutting up Spike Lee, and ignoring the contribution and development of black filmmakers has led to the conundrum we find ourselves in today — a great divide between “black movies” and “white movies.” We have Tyler Perry movies. And god help him if he ever tries to be taken seriously because Tyler Perry has long since been written off by the white filmy pseudo-respectable awards circus. We want it to be different but how is it ever going to change if it hasn’t yet changed?
Focus Features released Pariah, a film about a strong, forthright, independent black woman — and Focus, of course, is in the business of promoting characters who don’t fit snugly into the standard. But good luck getting anyone to do much about Pariah. Focus Features, though, good on them for saying — who cares if it doesn’t have a ticket to the Homecoming Dance. It’s a great fucking movie.
The critics failure to recognize Viola Davis’ great work in The Help, and Octavia Spencer’s for that matter, has more to do with our culture’s conditioning reflex to respond more powerfully to white stories. For instance, Davis is never going to even be offered the chance to play The Iron Lady because no black woman would ever get that opportunity because Margaret Thatcher wasn’t black. Nor could she have been. There is no way a black woman could have risen to power then. Similarly, Marilyn Monroe is a white icon, a part Davis would never be offered. She wouldn’t get the part in Albert Nobbs either because though it was bad for women back then, imagine how it was for black women?
My daughter’s best friend goes to one of those “let’s make them a star” middle schools here in Los Angeles. She’s in 8th grade, about to graduate from the program which promises, of course, to deliver the next generation of Disney TV stars. Her last chance to star in a play and that play was Hairspray. The John Waters play is a wonderful story about racism, of course. After auditions I asked her, “so what part did you get?” And she said, “there is only one good part for a black actress and someone else got it, so I’ll be a chorus girl.” A chorus girl, I fumed. Why the hell would they pick THAT play to do? How is that fair — AT ALL? I could hear myself getting hysterical. Of course, you can’t hold it against Hairspray — it is about the truth of a time. And therefore, the roles are divided between black and white characters. And we have to just watch as the white kids get cast and the black kids don’t. Welcome to the jungle.
The Help is a similar story — those parts are defined the way they are because that’s the reality of that time. Given those constraints, given the lack of leading roles for black actresses, given the impossibility of a mainstream Hollywood film making over $100 million when the majority of the box office is dominated by your usual shit stream only Hollywood can deliver, isn’t it not just a minor miracle, but a revelatory jump-up-and-down miracle that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer might be ready to make history as the first two black actresses to win in the same year?
I don’t know what will happen this weekend when the SAG rolls out its winners. God help any contender going up against a Weinstein contender, especially of the Meryl Streep kind. Streep is OVERDUE for a win, no doubt about it. She has the good fortune of having another great role lined up already for next year. And likely after that, another and then another. For Streep, the sky is the limit. For Davis, she hit the ceiling already and in one of those ways you can only dream about, she is close to pushing through it and maybe then she can see what is beyond it. And so can we.