Who is Octavia Spencer (1972- ) I hear you say?
Well, she is only the most recent winner of an academy award for best supporting actress-“The Help” (2012). She is testament to personal determination to take membership in a profession that marginalizes women whose figure and color are, to coin a phrase, irregular deviations from the preferred norm.
I remember Spencer as a familiar face in countless episodes of television dramas and comedy films (Bad Santa; Blue Streak; Big Mommas’ House; Beauty Shop). Her roles were small and fleeting; they made use of her size, face and color as supportive props for the normal and everyday that defines African American life: the girl opening the door; the waitress; the security guard; the customer; the landlady; the nurse. However, even in those limited acting moments she added such a touch of “realness” to the scenes in which she appeared one more often remembered her presence than that of the “star (s)” of the venture.
She won an academy award for the role of a maid in “The Help” (2012), the type of role African-Americans and African-American actors hope would cease to be their pathway to paid work in the acting profession, or, at least, the filmic part of it.
It is always a tortuous moment for African-Americans when their actors receive recognition for roles that continue to affix them in a symbolic continuum of subordination and inferiority. They appreciate the recognition for acting talent the particular actor or actress receives, but shudder when the role is that of a character that mimics their history as unfree labour in America’s past.
The collective call is for roles that show the wide variety of accomplishments, good and bad, of African-Americans in the modern era; roles that reflect their earned capacity to determine their own destiny. It is this request ticket buying European America and some members of the Hollywood casting, directing and producing establishment refuse to promote. Take, for example, the directorial history of Theodore Witcher, who wrote and directed, “Love Jones” (1997), starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate; some 15 years after the film’s debut, Witcher has not directed another film. In an interview with the Internet magazine, The Root, Witcher had the following to say about his disappearance:
TW: No. I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn’t get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don’t get to do that.(http://www.theroot.com/views/love-jones-director-remembers-beloved-classic?page=0,1)
The yearning for diverse and respectable images is therefore an ongoing political struggle that no one individual can engage in alone and hope to win. It is for this reason Reverend Jesse Jackson’s pre-Oscar’s open letter to the Hollywood establishment care of his Huffington Post blog, becomes reason to pause. Titled, “Academy Award Voters Need Diversity in Script” Reverend Jackson made a case for an elite and unrepresentative Hollywood to become more representative than it presently is:
“… the 5,765 voting members of the Academy are far from representative of the moviegoing public…. A remarkable investigation by Los Angeles Times reporters pierced the screen of secrecy to reveal that the voting members are a stunning 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Only 2 percent are African-American, and less than 2 percent are Latino. Their median age is 62, and only 14 percent are younger than 50.
The Academy’s leaders say the organization is trying to do better, but it is hard to see any evidence of that. Since 2004, the names of 1,000 invitees have been published: 89 percent white, and 73 percent male. The 43 member Academy Board of Governors has all of six women, one of whom is the sole person of color. The Academy’s executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch. Corporate boardrooms do better than that.
Not surprisingly, the voting tends to reflect the composition of the voters. In the 83 years of the Academy, the Times reports, only 4 percent of Oscars have been awarded to an African-American. Only one woman has received the award for directing.
In 2011, not a single minority person was among the 45 nominees for the major awards: best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, director, original and adapted screenplay. More astounding, the Academy failed to identify even one black male presenter for the awards. African-American actors were not only shut out of the awards; they were shut out of the attention that comes from presenting them.
….Women and minorities dream of becoming directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors just as white men do. Young talent drives Hollywood and our popular culture more than the established older generation. And Hollywood’s audience across the country and around the world is young and diverse.(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-jesse-jackson/academy-award-voters–diversity_b_1290850.html).
Are roles of helpful, when not angry, subordinates, the only roles and images African-Americans and non-African Americans are to be permitted to see of the former, or can more diverse and respectful images be trusted to make profits at the box office?
In my book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: Empire, Enlightenment and Cult of the Unthinking Negro (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), I created the concept, the commodity property of anti-African hatred, to make sense of how and why African American actors partake in the creation and reproduction of demeaning roles and images. The answer: Africans as a scapegoated community are symbolic evidence of inferiority (non-being) to the European superior (being). In other words, the African, just by virtue of his/her skin color represents to the European American confirmation of his/her superiority and the African’s inferiority.
Hollywood is the symbolic police; the police industrial complex, the body police: one polices the African image to maintain it in a posture of inferiority vis a vis European America; the other, polices the African body to keep it in the geophysical space of inferiority designed for it to reproduce the reflexes of subordination socially prescribed for it. In both instances, the desired outcome: the innate sense of superiority European Americans enjoy in America is a function of policing protocols by Hollywood and the police-judicial system.
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films (1973) was an important resource in my efforts to theorize the above. Bogle showed African American actors transformed stereotyped roles into much more than Hollywood directors and producers expected. They used their limited time on screen to protest their anti-human minimization claiming the fullness of their humanity in the process. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis-her fellow maid in “The Help”- are the latest African-American actors to transform demeaning roles into filmic works of art. A Luta Continua: The struggle continues….
Charles Simon-Aaron: Mugabe: Land Wars, Resource Nationalism and Empire (Forthcoming)
Class Ideology and African Political Theory (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011)