Sunday night’s Oscar ceremonies provided the usual displays of celebrity fashion and idolatry. When Angelina Jolie arrived to present the screenwriting awards and stood at the stage’s edge with her right leg prominently jutting through a severe slit in her designer gown, I realized no one in their right mind can take this stuff seriously. Every year at this time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences excretes these coveted statuettes amidst the tabloid revelry and calls it ceremonious. But, like all other awards shows, the Oscars are nothing more than popularity contests; particularly in the acting and directing categories. Henry Fonda once noted that it was ridiculous to nominate five actors for an award, but then select only one to receive it. Katherine Hepburn, for example, is still considered one of America’s greatest actresses; the Academy bestowed four Best Actress Oscars upon her. But, in my opinion, she has nothing on Meryl Streep who picked up her third Oscar Sunday night. Hepburn never truly acted; she just sort of behaved. She was too arrogant to let herself disappear into a character. Streep, on the other hand, becomes almost indistinguishable whenever she takes on another persona. Again, just my view. If you want to see genuinely talented competition, watch a high school speech and debate contest.
This Wednesday, the 29th, will mark the 72nd anniversary of the 1940 Academy Awards where Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as “Mammie” in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel was the first African-American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar. She was also the first African-American to attend an Oscar ceremony, although she had to sit at the back of the room in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Her win was bittersweet. It marked a cinematic milestone for Black Americans. But, Gone with the Wind arrived in theatres to face as many protests from the NAACP as it did accolades from fans of Margaret Mitchell’s book. Civil rights activists denounced the film’s stereotypical portrayals of Blacks. McDaniel even sat out the film’s premier in Atlanta, saying she had other obligations. In reality, she wasn’t welcome.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario now, especially considering the leftist bent the American cinematic community seems to possess. But, observing this year’s contenders, I noticed three new faces: Viola Davis, a Best Actress nominee for The Help; Octavia Spencer, a Best Supporting Actress nominee also for The Help; and Demián Bechir, a Best Actor nominee for A Better Life. Spencer won in her field. More importantly, though, I noticed the roles they played were as stereotypical as ‘Mammie,’ anomalies in 21st century American films. Or maybe not. The Help is a period piece about a young White woman who decides to write a controversial book from the point of view of Black maids amidst the civil rights struggles of early 1960’s Mississippi; instead of – say – one of the maids suddenly discovering her literary muse and writing her own story. A Better Life is a contemporary tale about a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to stay in the United States to provide (as the title implies) a better life for his son, while working as a gardener in East L.A. Regardless of their respective storylines and grandiose intentions, both films play into conventional roles often assigned to Blacks (housekeepers) and Hispanics (immigrant gardeners). To be fair, I haven’t seen either film – and I don’t intend to see them. I’ve watched plenty of formulaic characterizations of Blacks and Hispanics in films and on TV.
But, you’d think in the 72 years since Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar, things would have changed for both ethnic groups. Obviously, Hollywood isn’t as liberal as the talking heads on FOX News claim it is. Despite years of progress and social consciousness – with celebrities publicly calling for more AIDS research, support for animal rights, etc. – the American entertainment community often likes to stick with what’s popular, or at least with what it knows. Much like corporate America, the biggest movie studios are run by old and middle-aged White men. So, it’s easy to deduce that Hollywood’s country club elitists still can’t see Blacks and Hispanics occupying more mundane professions like accountants, doctors, architects and technical writers. We’re still pushing mops and lawn mowers in their minds.
They may not be able to see beyond those typical characterizations, but I certainly can – because that’s pretty much all I’ve seen of Blacks and Hispanics. We’re educated and hard-working just like…well, just like you’d expect the average American citizen to be. One only has to watch an episode of The First 48 on A&E to see more Blacks and Hispanics wearing law enforcement uniforms than gang colors. Blacks actually have fared pretty well in film and television in recent decades. They’re no longer presented as the ‘happy Negro,’ content with merely singing delightful Walt Disney songs, or delivering coy punch lines. Hispanics, it seems, have yet to arrive, despite some concerted efforts like Chico and the Man and, more recently, George Lopez. And, Native Americans haven’t even made it to the gate. Some years ago a friend of mine who was of Vietnamese extraction lamented the constant portrayals of Asians as “wacky scientists” or “goofy doctors.”
“At least you’re shown as doctors and scientists,” I told her. My people are still shown as gang members and illegal aliens.”
Blacks certainly have come a long way since Hattie McDaniel floated across the silver screen in proper kerchief and apron. Hispanics also have made considerable strides since Desi Arnaz became the first Hispanic on American television. Native Americans haven’t migrated much from the Little Big Man days, although there was that blip called Dances with Wolves. I guess Hollywood and Academy executives are still smarting from Marlon Brando’s stunt at the 1973 Oscars. I don’t fault Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Demián Bechir for taking on their respective roles. In a business where unemployment hovers around 100%, people have to grab what they can. But for all the headway and enlightenment we’ve achieved, The Help and A Better Life insinuate that Blacks and Hispanics occasionally have to be reminded of our proverbial place in society and how we shouldn’t stray too far from that standard. I sense “our people” have to placate the money-laden powers in Hollywood every once in a while, if they want to keep working. For better or worse, though, here we are – and circumstances have improved. Change is often slow, yet unstoppable. As philosopher William James once said, “Human beings, by changing the inner attitude of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”