Gone with the...Help?
Octavia Spencer plays Hattie McDaniel
(Sentinel, March 1-7, 2012)
Congratulations to Octavia Spencer for winning the Academy Award
for Best Supporting Actress in her role as "Minny" in the Oscar-nominated film The Help
At the Awards show this past Sunday, February 26,
2012, Octavia was up against stiff competition in the persons of Bérénice Bejo (The Artist),
Jessica Chastain (The Help), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), all
in contention for the gold standard.
"Minny" bears a striking resemblance to "Mammie" as played by Hattie McDaniel, the first Black
actress to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the multiple-Academy Award-winning movie Gone with the Wind
Both Mammie and Minny were rotund subservient domestic
workers who served in a segregated South. Not much has changed in Hollywood in the seven-plus decades between Octavia's
Oscar statuette and Hattie's small plaque-style Oscar. (The statuette was not awarded to Best Supporting Actors and Actresses
at the time.)
In this latest issuance, a zaftig Black maid is
also rewarded for ‘supporting' attractive White Southern Belles.
Help" for Hattie: Hollywood's obsession with dark-skinned, or, "Aunt Jemima-type"
actresses for Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique, 2009; Jennifer Hudson, 2006; Whoopi Goldberg, 1991)
manifested itself yet again with Octavia's win. At least Babylon is consistent. Hattie had already set the standard.
Actually, she established a number of Black firsts. Having appeared
in over 300 films (only 80 of which she received credit), Hattie was the first Black person to win an Academy Award; the
first Black person to be nominated for Best Acting; the first Black actress to win Best Supporting Actress;
and the oldest Black actress to win an Academy Award (age 44).
Black actors "were consistently required to speak in contrived stereotypical ‘Negro dialects'"
(Wikipedia), Hattie was a cultured woman. She belonged to Sigma Gamma Rho, one of only four Black sororities countrywide.
Octavia also made numerous films, and graduated from Auburn with a bachelor's degree.
In 1931 Hattie played "Hi-Hat Hattie," ‘a bossy maid who forgets her place,' on a
KNX Radio show here in LA, a character that was the forerunner of "Florence Johnston" as played
by Marla Gibbs on The Jeffersons. Hattie's first two film roles (in 1932 and 1933) were as "plump
black maids." Mae West, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart were among luminaries she worked with.
Prejudice at the Premiere: When Gone with the
Wind premiered in Atlanta, Black actors were barred from attending, and were also excluded from
the souvenir program.
In spite of Georgia's segregationist laws producer David
Selznick tried to get Hattie admitted; and an angry Clark Gable--a friend she had worked with before--threatened
But she convinced him to attend. About two
weeks later she attended the Hollywood debut and was featured prominently.
Aplenty for Minny: In pigheaded Tinsel Town tradition, its affinity for robust Black maids
allowed Octavia to make her mark.
She has also played a nurse, caretaker, ex-con,
and pesky immigration agent. Her credits include roles in Moesha, Ugly Betty, and
other sitcoms; dramas like Chicago Hope, Roswell, and The X-Files; and features
like A Time to Kill (1998), Big Momma's House (2000), Beauty Shop (2005),
and Seven Pounds (2008).
One can only conclude that fairness and equity for Blacks in Hollywood has been Gone with the Wind
for a long as Babylon has been in existence. And victory for Black Oscar winners has been bittersweet.
"For [Blacks], the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only
those who did not protest Hollywood's systemic racial stereotypes would find work and success there,"
To Blacks who criticized
her for being a "sellout" Hattie reportedly retorted: "Why should I complain about making
$700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."
Octavia, too, received criticism from the Black community for her role as maid in The Help.
Conclusion: Indeed, Octavia Spencer and other industry
Blacks have concluded that something is better than nothing.
They reason that
"a live dog is better off than a dead lion," believing that in adopting a lower profile they
can live to fight another day.--Ecclesiastes 9:4, New World Translation.
The fact is, all casualties of the racist juggernaut that is Hollywood--including
frustrated Blacks and sympathetic Whites--should embrace the immortal words of Stevie Wonder when he
sang, Heaven Help Us All (1970). Ultimately, heaven will.
In the meantime,
peace and blessings to all. Amen.