In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to be nominated for, and win, an Oscar. She got her best supporting actress award by playing Mammy, the jolly house slave in Gone With the Wind. At the ceremony, she was not seated with the rest of the cast; instead she and her guest sat at a segregated table.
The award was bittersweet for black audiences. The role required her to be spoken down to by a much younger southern woman (Vivien Leigh) and didn’t touch on her life beyond her white owner’s house. Since then, only five black women have gone on to win acting Oscars. That became six after Octavia Spencer won on Sunday. Her role? A maid in the 1960s.
It’s important not to confuse criticism of The Help with a belief that black actors shouldn’t play maids. It’s just a question of why only maids… or inner city child abusers (Precious) or entertainers (Dreamgirls). Excluding Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Ghost, those are the only roles for which black actresses have won Oscars.
White actresses who have won the same award have played a wide range of professions and backgrounds — queens (Shakespeare in Love), neurotic New Yorkers (Hannah and Her Sisters), quirky dog walkers (The Accidental Tourist), 1920s vaudevillians (Chicago), and non-abusive mothers (The Fighter). They represent the world — not just a servile and pathetic portion of it.
Thirty-five years after Diane Keaton won Best Actress for Annie Hall, there still aren’t similar roles for black women. Not a criminal. Not a maid. Just a middle-class woman living her life. Waiting to Exhale was a brief glimpse into this world but the Academy ignored it (rightly or wrongly — I’m not making an aesthetic judgment… though I’m not sure how it could have been worse than Bad Southern Accent Theatre).
Billy Crystal’s “joke” about The Help during the Oscars does a good job of perhaps unwittingly demonstrating the divide in Hollywood:
When Octavia Spencer won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing a maid in “The Help,” Mr. Crystal joked that after he saw the movie, he was so moved he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw, adding, “which in Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.” It was a line that could have been used back when Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to be honored with an Academy Award, won for playing a maid in “Gone With the Wind.”
Of course, a random black female lawyer would love being embraced by a strange white person who just wandered out of a movie about black maids. “Oh, what you people went through! I mean, it’s not anything I did personally or anyone I know… but other more cartoonly villainous people.” “Lady, get off me. I went to Georgetown.” Yeah, that’s not condescending at all. I know I’m compelled to french kiss the first Jewish person I run into after seeing a World War II film.