Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where are the Great Roles for Black Women?

I have wanted to post on this topic or a similar topic since the release of the film The Help almost Huskies for Hunger: Feeding Children Everywhereweeks ago.  The first topic I was going to post on was in regard to the subject matter of both the book and the film.  Sascha Stone from commented on a post from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) and their problem with the common portrayal of black women as subservient to white women.  The ABWH also took issue with the fact that the film portrays the struggle of "the help" through the vantage point of the main white character, Rita, who is trying to advance her career and write a book based on the struggles of Abileen, Hilly, and the other black maids in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the book the story is told from three different viewpoints, and the reader gets to see what the three characters experience.  I have not seen the film yet, but based on word of mouth, and the fact that people are debating Viola Davis's characters category placement, the main focus in the film is Rita's point of view. I will not pardon the book because like the ABWH states black women are and have been more than maids in history, and their common representation in literature and film has been as the caretakers for white children.  I have not been able to see the film yet to judge for myself because my job has kept me chained to my desk working 12 hour days, but I will soon be judging for myself.

I think the ABWH has a point in regards to common portrayals which can influence the outside perspective of audiences.  White audiences are used to a Gone with the Wind type representation with black women.  The character in Gone with the Wind was called mammy who was played by Hattie McDaniel, and she was the first black person to win and Academy Award (she won in the Supporting Actress category.)  In her post Gone with the Wind career McDaniel was pigeon holed and even though she was an Academy Award winner she was never offered better roles.

Gone With the Wind was of course released in 1939 when much of the country was still embroiled in the debate of separate but equal, Jim Crow, and a time when McDaniel was scared to go to the premiere of the Gone with the Wind in Atlanta because of fear of violence.  Even after the Civil Rights Movement the number of varied roles for black actors was limited, or the same actors have been overused and because of their popularity it prevents other actors from becoming bigger stars (examples Denzel Washington, Will Smith).  This is a trend with black males, and I am by no means blaming Washington or Smith.  I blame studios for not taking the risk to develop better stories. 

Then there was the first black actress who won an Oscar in Best Actress category, Halle Berry for Monster's Ball.  Berry plays an inarticulate poor, "bad mother" whose husband is on death row at the beginning of the film, and she needs the love of a good white man to help her out.  The context of this role is awful.  Berry gives a great performance (again I cannot discredit the actress).  Was this representation of black women really the first performance that deserved to win this award?  I think Hollywood executives need to challenge the common representation and work towards carving out roles that portray black women in the different roles they play.

Going back to the recently release film The Help and star Viola Davis, it came to my attention that is she  were nominated for an Academy Award for this performance she would be only the second black actress to be nominated for two Academy Awards (her first nomination came in 2008 for the film Doubt).  The only other actress who has two Academy Award nominations is Whoopi Goldberg who was nominated The Color Purple (1985) and Ghost (1990); she won for Ghost.  Why is their only one black actress with more than one Academy Award nomination?  Goldberg was great in both of those films and I am happy she is an Oscar winner, but the fact that she is the only black actress with multiple acting nominations is problematic.

Here is a list of the black actresses nominated for Academy Awards

Lead Actress (8 nominations and 1 winner)
Dorothy Dandrige-Carmen Jones (1954)
Diana Ross-Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Cicely Tyson-Sounder (1972)
Diahann Carroll-Claudine (1974)
Whoopi Goldberg-The Color Purple (1985)
Angella Bassett-What's Love got to do with it? (1993)
Halle Berry-Monster's Ball (2001)-Winner
Gaborey Sidibe-Precious (2009)

Supporting Actress (15 nominees and 4 Winners- 3 of within the last 20 years)
Hattie McDaniel-Gone with the Wind (1939)-Winner
Ethal Waters-Pinky (1949)
Juanita Moore-Imitation of Life (1959)
Beach Richards-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967)
Alfre Woodard-Cross Creek (1983)
Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey-The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg-Ghost (1990)-Winner
Marianne Jean-Baptiste-Secrets and Lies (1996)
Queen Latifah-Chicago (2002)
Sophie Okenedo-Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Jennifer Hudson-Dreamgirls (2006)-Winner
Ruby Dee-American Gangster (2007)
Viola Davis-Doubt (2008)
Taraji P. Henson-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Mo'Nique-Precious (2009)-Winner

Now the Academy Awards are not the final say on quality film, but within the film industry they are regarded as the award that means the most and is the most well known worldwide.  The amount of nominees and winners shows the true barometer of the portrayal of black women in film and the quality work available.  Throughout the 83 years of the Academy there have been 10 actresses nominated each year (making 830 actress nominations) and only 23 of those nominees were black women (percentage wise that is only 3 %).  That percentage is abysmal.

Looking at the statistics it is clear that "good roles" for black women are often supporting.  The proof for this is in both the nomination and wins in each category.  15 nominations in the supporting category, and 8 nominations in the lead category, this number is cut in half.  Hollywood executives are much more comfortable with placing black women in supporting roles as opposed to making them lead characters that carry a film.  In the lead category, The Color Purple is the most popular film, made the most money, and is probably the most well known (and that is in part because the director was Steven Spielberg.)

Viola Davis is brilliant actress, give her more to do Hollywood!  Davis is more than Julia Roberts best friend in Eat, Pray, Love.  I know The Help is a divisive film for many groups, and I agree.  There needs to be more films out there that provide black women with a different voice.  Hollywood is powerful, and the images they create have lasting impressions. I hope that Hollywood takes more risks and tells the different stories of black women, but with The Help being successful I fear that executives will continue to tell the same story, that black women were once the help.

No comments: