Lupita Nyong’o joined the coveted Oscar ranks earlier this month, becoming the seventh black actress (who is of Kenyan descent) to win an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Mar. 2. While the accolades collected by 12 Years a Slave that night (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) set a precedent for African-American nominees, as both performers and filmmakers, it was a bittersweet moment for its brazen decision and belated recognition. It was both a moment of celebration and a time to reflect on the demarcation of race equality at the Oscars. Nyongo’s win is a minute victory (despite a superlative performance) in a, seemingly, indomitable white hegemonic race.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the underrepresentation of Latinas at the Oscars, where I stated that Latina Oscar winners make up only 1.8 percent of the female acting category pool with just a mere three wins. This is highly disproportionate to the U.S. Latino population, which makes up approximately 17 percent. While African-Americans actresses are more proportionately represented at the Oscars, they are still, like Latina actresses, misrepresented.
Nyong’o joins the six other African-American Oscar-winning actresses that preceded her, which include Octavia Spencer (The Help), Mo’Nique (Precious), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost), Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) and Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) who is the only African-American actress to win in the Best Actress category. Out of the 163 Oscar-winning actresses in both acting categories (which includes repeat winners and ties), African-American actresses constitute 4.3 percent of the Oscar wins. This is lower than the 13 percent of the African-American population in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2012. The distortion of African-American representation in cinema, while slightly improved, still disturbingly echoes many of the racial stigmas that laid the groundwork for early film history.
Early film history is pockmarked with ethnic stereotypes, from The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, to Imitation of Life, the image of the negro woman has been mischaracterized, caricatured and forever stamped on celluloid.
McDaniel was the first African-American actress to be nominated and win an Academy Award in 1939, for her role as Mammy – the maternal, enslaved housemaid to Vivien Leigh’s character in Gone with the Wind. The racial caricature of the “Mammy” role set the tone for perception of African-American women through white spectatorship. In her book, “Girls on Film,” Julie Burchill writes
Black women have been mothers without children (Mammies – who can ever forget the sickening spectacle of Hattie MacDaniel waiting on the simpering Vivien Leigh hand and foot and enquiring like a ninny, “What’s ma lamb gonna wear?”)
The maternal, subservient characteristics are still present today in roles for African-American women. Recently, Spencer, Viola Davis (The Help) and Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) were nominated within the last five years for their portrayals of domestic housemaids.
There have been 26 African-American actresses nominated for an Oscar in the history of the Academy Awards (Goldberg has been nominated twice, making the total nominations for African-American actresses 27). While only a few were for inauspicious roles such as the Mammy character, many of the rest reveal the significant lack of opportunities for African-American women in Hollywood.
Many of the roles these actresses are nominated for are “black-explicit,” meaning they are not race neutral and are unfit for an actress of any other race to take. For example, Nyong’o’s role as a slave kept in bondage could not have been played by a white actress. The same is true of other nominees, such as Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Precious), Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple), Goldberg (The Color Purple), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Cicely Tyson (Sounder), Ethel Waters (Pinky), Beah Richards (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek) and Margaret Avery (The Color Purple).
In an almost white-exclusive industry, roles for women of color are limited, often down to stereotypes (however riveting the performance or instrumental the film in challenging convention such as 12 Years a Slave). Of her role in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel famously stated, “I can either work in Hollywood and make $700 a week, or I can work as a maid and make $7 a week.” While McDaniel’s precedent-setting win blazed the trail for other African-American actresses and cemented a presence for African-Americans at the ceremony, she simultaneously ignited the perpetuation of Hollywood stereotypes and, consequently, set the tone for future African-American roles in film.
In May, The Chicago Sun Times conducted an interview with Tamberla Perry, an African-American actress, where she reveals her frustrations over the diversity of roles African-American women have and eerily parallels what McDaniel’s stated over 50 years ago.
I still get calls looking for me to fill the role of the “sassy” black character. But sometimes, if the money is right, I may have to shut my mouth, take a role and deal with it later on. I may have less of that to deal with than the many women who came before me, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. It most certainly still does happen.
In recent years, the filmmakers responsible for creating more opportunities and diverse roles for African-American actors are usually African-American themselves: Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, Steve McQueen, John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Tyler Perry…the list is rather short. Perry has made a financially successful career out of films and television with black-explicit casting. Lee has also made political stances on his productions – count how many white people worked on his 1988 film School Daze. And when it comes to black female directors, the prospects are quite depressing. According to an article, published in November by Dustin Rowles on Pajiba.com, Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) is the highest grossing black female director of all time with $66 million over her entire career. The only other black female director to have a $60 million lifetime gross is Gina Prince-Blythwood (Love and Basketball).
Many of these directors, and many of their films, created the opportunity for black spectators to view images of black people not refracted through the mental, prejudiced lens of white spectatorship. As the feminist author bell hooks has pointed out,
When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy. To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage its images, was to engage its negation of black representation. It was the oppositional black gaze that responded to these looking relations by developing independent black cinema.
But as we all know, independent black cinema has yet to permeate mainstream cinema. It’s a niche business with a niche audience. The other problem is that “black cinema” doesn’t translate as well over seas, despite some domestic success such as Perry’s films, according to a 2011 THR article by Pamela McClintock and Tim Appelo. African-American actors constitute only 13 percent of film and TV roles (a drop by two percent in the last decade) according to SAG. African-American actresses are rarely granted the same financial opportunities as white actresses. For example, in a 2012 Forbes list, the top ten earning actresses between May 2011 and May 2012 were all comprised of white actresses. Not every black woman can be as successful as Oprah.
Why is it that it’s 2014, yet white females still have precedent over race-neutral roles? Or, better yet, why don’t white directors delegate roles to more non-white actresses. It’s a question often asked, yet rarely answered. In a 2011 roundtable director’s interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Steve McQueen asked his peers (who, needless to say were all white) why they refuse to cast minorities in their films. The wonderfully chagrin-induced atmosphere is punctuated by a less inspiring response.
We might never have an honest answer from those at the top of the hierarchy, but as McQueen stated, it’s all about opportunity. Hopefully, continuing to spur – and engage in! – dialogue will incite action.
A Look Ahead at 2014…
While the past will remain polluted with oppression, racial caricatures and the reflection of once politically-correct, yet now archaic and embarrassing representations, we can look ahead to the future in hopes of social progress.
There are a few films in production, set to be released later this year with prominent African-American actresses (and one exception). Some of these roles, as expected, are black-explicit, others are a refreshing re-interpretation:
Wallis will play the titular role in the re-imagining of the beloved broadway musical based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. (Does she have to be from Compton, though?)
Viola Davis: Get On Up (Aug. 1)
Spencer will team up again with director Tate Taylor (The Help) for the James Brown biography, playing James’ mother Susie Brown.
Nia Long: The Single Moms Club (Mar. 14)
Long will play a single mother who joins a support groups for other single moms in the latest comedy/drama from Tyler Perry.
Alfre Woodard: Annabelle (Oct. 3)
For those who’ve seen The Conjuring, the title might sound familiar. The film is a spin-off of the malevolent doll featured in James Wan’s horror-flick. No word yet on who Woodard will play, but stereotype-intuition tells me it’s probably a Voodoo practitioner.
Octavia Spencer: The Great Gilly Hopkins (release date T.B.A.) and Get On Up (Aug. 1)
Spencer has a whopping five films set to be released this year. Surely, her Oscar win in 2012 for The Help had something to do with it. She will star alongside her Help co-star Davis in Get On Up, playing a character named Aunt Honey. The Great Gilly Hopkins is based on the YA novel of the same name, written by Katherine Paterson, about a young, wise-cracking foster girl, who moves from foster home to foster home. No word yet on who Spencer will play.
Despite being Puerto Rican and Dominican, Saldana has been cast to play Nina Simone in Nina, a film about the late jazz singer and pianist, in which she’ll be wearing blackface makeup to look the part. Her other film is Kill the Trumpet Player, based on the late jazz trumpeteer Miles Davis’ life, where she’ll play a character named Francis Taylor.
It’s ironic that the actress with the most Oscar potential for playing an African-American is a Latina. Saldana has a chance for a Best Actress Oscar nomination with Nina, despite a fallback to Jazz Singer gimmicks. The Academy has been known to recognize black biographies (Ray, Dreamgirls, Malcolm X, Lady Sings the Blues, etc.) Davis also has a chance for a Best Supporting Actress nomination in the James Brown biography. She has been nominated twice now – once for The Help (Best Actress) and in 2009 for Doubt (Best Supporting Actress).
While it’s safe to say Annie probably won’t receive any nominations, it’s nice to see Wallis step into a role that has been exclusively-white hitherto.