Behind the glitz and glam of Sunday night's Oscar ceremony the topic of race was once again raised in Hollywood as to actress Octavia Spencer's receiving the award of best supporting actress for her role in The Help. A triumphant win which makes Spencer the 13th African American (and the 6th female) to win an Oscar for acting achievements in the award shows 86 year history.
Though it may seem black actors and actresses are finally getting the recognition they deserve, it is important to notice that the roles Hollywood are choosing to recognise black actors and actresses are highly racialised and gender stereotypical with black female actresses baring much of the brunt.
What Octavia Spencer's win at this years Oscar's for her role as fiesty maid 'Minny Jackson' in The Help (set in America in the 1960s during racial segregation) actually shows is how little social perceptions of black women and the role of black women in film has changed considering that Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar in 1940, won in the same category for her portrayal as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Despite their being over 70 years between the two wins Hollywood still seems to find it appropriate to recongnise and celebrate black women playing repressive roles of servitude!
The general image perceived of black womanhood from the films that earned 6 black actresses Oscar's, portrays black women as being poor and struggling, (usually) overweight and more often then not single mothers. Take Hallie Berry's role in Monsters Ball, where her black husband is incarcerated and she struggles to look after her overweight son; Jennifer Hudson's performance in Dream Girls, as an overweight singer who doesn't have the 'right image' and becomes a struggling single mother when her black partner leaves; or Mo’Nique's performance in Precious as an abusive mother to an illiterate and overweight teen who gets sexually molested by her father.
While I haven't watched the The Help nor have I read the book, I find it hard to consider the story a positive or accurate representation of the black (female) struggle on the basis that the author is not of black ethnicity which to me renders the story inauthentic. This is why when researching the history of Academy awards I felt it racially motivated that the Academy would recognise The Help with Spencer's award when the film adaptation of Alice Walker's book The Color Purple failed to receive any of its 11 Oscar nominations. Not that I'm disputing Spencer's performance in the film, though it would seem that the Academy finds it soothing in acknowledging a film about the struggles of black people in America when told by the white perspective over a more authentic telling by a reputable black author.
Whoopi Goldberg who was nominated for best actress for her role in The Color Purple in 1985 lost out to Geraldine Page for her role in a The Trip to Bountiful, though was acknowledge years later for her role as the crook Oda Mae Brown in the film Ghost.
At present Hallie Berry is the only black woman to have won an Oscar in the best actress category compared to the four black actors who have won best actor. This in itself highlights the lack of appreciation and hostility Hollywood has towards black actresses and shows that black female acting achievements are being marginalised to supporting categories, with black actresses receiving almost half the amount of nominations for best actress as they do in the best supporting actress category.