Much has been written about The Help’s whitewashing of American history in the Jim Crow South. The film’s revisionist plot follows the efforts of an altruistic white savior, played by Emma Stone, as she writes a book about the daily lives of maids in 1963 Mississippi. Certain realities of the time, including the death of prominent civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, are brushed aside, glossed over, or completely misinterpreted. Tulane political-science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry has called the movie “ahistorical” and “deeply troubling.” With the Academy Awards two weeks away and The Help, which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, poised to win big, what does the film’s success say about Hollywood’s unwillingness to properly tell black stories?
James McBride, who co-wrote the upcoming film Red Hook Summer with Spike Lee, recently penned an open letter to Hollywood in which he noted the irony of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer receiving acting nominations (best actress, and best supporting actress, respectively) for their roles in The Help 70 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for best supporting actress in the same role—as a maid. McBride’s point underscores how little we have progressed on portrayals of race in America.
It’s difficult to look at the Oscars and not consider why a mostly white Hollywood establishment is choosing to honor black actors for roles that either criminalize them by casting black men as amoral monsters, such as Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning role in Training Day, or exploit their bodies by casting black women as over-sexualized objects of male desire, as in Halle Berry’s award-winning turn for Monster’s Ball. If The Help’s phenomenal star, Viola Davis, wins for her performance, she’ll be one in a long list of black actors rewarded for playing a role that represents the black experience through a white person’s lens.
In 2001, when Washington won his second Oscar (for lead actor, he had previously won best supporting actor for his performance in Glory) for his raw portrayal of a dirty cop in the movie Training Day, you couldn’t help but wonder why the Academy chose to recognize this performance and not others. While Washington’s exceptional performances as Malcolm X and as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter earned him Oscar nominations, it was his role as a criminal that received the Academy’s ultimate praise. But it was also this role, as dirty cop Alonso Harris, that reinforced the idea that black men, even as cops, are constantly living beyond the letter of the law.
That same year, Halle Berry won the best actress award for her gritty performance in Monster’s Ball. Berry was the first, and so far only, African American to win the award. Berry’s performance in Monster’s Ball was stellar. However, critics honed in on her animalistic and drunken sex scene with her white co-star Billy Bob Thornton, with some arguing that the scene alone won Berry the award. In many ways, the scene plays out a fantasy in which an average beer-drinking guy like Thornton’s character is able to sleep with Halle Berry while she allows him to physically dominate her.
Washington’s and Berry’s performances were exceptional, but their roles fit the standard perceptions of black men and women in the American fabric: black man as criminal and black woman as oversexed jezebel. Hollywood’s embrace of these roles doesn’t reflect progress but regression.
Should Davis receive the best actress award for The Help; her win will be similar to Washington’s: Davis was previously nominated for Doubt, where she played a mother concerned about her son’s relationship with a priest suspected of pedophilia. The Academy’s choice to honor Davis’s role as a maid instead of previous work is a telling detail.
The Academy Awards and Hollywood writ large need to do a better job of recognizing and green-lighting roles and projects that reflect the authentic black experience. One recent example of a forward-thinking movie about black America is the independent film Pariah, the coming-of-age story of a black teenage girl struggling with her sexual identity while growing up with an ultra-religious mother. Pariah received awards from the Black Film Critics Circle, Hollywood Foreign Press, American Film Institute and Broadcast Film Critics Association but was ignored by the Oscars. The Academy’s choice to honor The Help is a reminder of how much further we have to move in order for the stories of people of all colors to be told with truth and substance. Davis’ past work shows that she is an exceptional actress whether playing a maid or a monarch. It’s time Hollywood finally gave her the opportunity to perform beyond the stereotypes.