On Sunday, the American Academy Awards metaphorically patted themselves on the back for what were considered a progressive Oscars. A French film, of all things, won best picture. Shock horror. Meryl Street won best Actress for her sympathetic depiction of, ahem, Margaret Thatcher. And Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her role as a maid in the 'segregation film' The Help.
Lest anyone be in any doubt, as a black woman and general lover of films, I am both happy about and proud of Spencer's achievement. Hollywood's, ahem, 'colour blindness' is, after all, controversial, if not legendary. Yet, I can't help but feel a niggling anger and disappointment about both the film itself and the nature of this winner's role. As black feminists Chitra Nagarajan and Anouchka have noted in the year that a 1920s esque silent movie receives major plaudits, we see that we haven’t moved that far in terms of roles that black women are recognised for. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Academy award for her role as Mammy to Vivienne Leigh’s spoilt Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. 72 years later we have a 4th Oscar won by a black woman in this category going to Spencer for her role as a long suffering maid to an emotionally abusive and selfish white woman. Is the spectrum of our experiences really THAT limited?
Worse still is the fact that Kathryn Stockett’s questionable book is made downright offensive on the silver screen. So the clichéd and ‘uplifting’ narrative of a white woman coming to the aid of oppressed black women who, until her intervention, didn’t really know that they had a viable voice, becomes something which essentially removes the little agency afforded them in the novel.
(Get ready for some serious spoilers!)
The film first omits the narrative detail that the initial idea of describing the struggles of black people in racist southern America comes from black people themselves. The book within the book is, in fact, the concept of Minny Jackson’s son who dies as a result of racism. In the film audiences are led to believe it is a Eureka moment from Miss Skeeter. Added to this, in the book, Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, is described as a gifted writer who, since her childhood, had honed her talent for storytelling. When Skeeter leaves racist Jackson Mississippi for her glamorous life in New York, she compels the editor of the local paper she has been writing housekeeping advice columns for to give the job to Abileen as the maid ‘practically wrote them anyway’. This is not included in the film. We are given no sense that writing had been a long held, thwarted ambition that Abileen quietly nurtured despite a racist system telling her she would only amount to being a maid.
To add insult to injury, the film makers then decide to place in a scene in which Minny’s employer, the ostracized and kind, if trashy, Celia Foote cooks a feast of all the recipes the maid has unsuccessful tried to teach her inept mistress. This does not happen in the book. Clearly, the film makers needed to underscore the message that white saviours during the days of segregation in America (although it still of course exists), were dotted all over the place. Obviously, too, it did not make economic sense that largely white audiences would leave cinemas feeling crap about themselves and their position within this awful history.
To be angry about the omissions/inclusions in the film version may seem petty to some, however they are not. These decisions carry a weight behind them that speaks volumes of what it is Hollywood considers marketable representations of black women. We are forever down trodden, uneducated, sassy, if not, we are invariably all of the above and hyper sexualised. These are tired and tiring models that Hollywood periodically regurgitates. Spencer’s win, though deserved, is nevertheless a gleaming example of how the powers that be within tinsel town are deeply reactionary, regressive and limited when it comes to black women. But then they would be wouldn’t they? A diverse bunch they are not. I just ask that they are not so self-congratulatory about their misconceived notions of moving ‘us’ forward.
By Lola Okolosie