Monday, February 27, 2012
Joyful Hating on The Help's Oscar "Success": At Least I Made the White Lady Eat Doo-Doo
The Oscars were a bit lifeless. We had a good opening montage, some bad audio (am I the only person who heard the feedback that sounded like a cell phone ringtone?), a failed effort by Robert Downey Jr. to break the fourth wall, and lots of Hollywood navel gazing and self-congratulatory rhetoric. At least the public was treated to a performance by the amazing Cirque du Soleil.
The politics of black respectability and representation in relationship to The Help have been the subject of much discussion. Ultimately, the dialogue has boiled down to one tried, true, and still unresolved question which black cultural workers have had to struggle with for more than a century: what to do about the white gaze? Are there roles that self-respecting black actors ought not to take because they validate white racism, and are too close to such perennial stereotypes as the mammy, buck, Sapphire or coon?
People need to eat, so I will not judge actors who take roles that I find distasteful. Ironically, black Americans are in some ways far removed from the era of Mantan Moreland and Hattie McDaniel. In other ways, those archetypes still hang over black cultural production. In all, perhaps we have reached a moment when there is not an overriding sense of linked fate, and where black folks are not obligated to support African-American cultural workers out of a shared ethic of race pride or belief in a common destiny?
To point, I engaged in a little radical autonomy last evening as I booed any mention of The Help and actively cheered against Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Ultimately, white folks got their cathartic moment as the latter won an Oscar for best supporting actress. But, Meryl Streep's Iron Lady put The Help to sleep. I will be happy with small victories.
The child actors in the Kids Reenact the Oscar Nominees got it pitch perfect. Those white folks who love The Help get to embrace a racism sanitized story that is validating and ego gratifying in the service of the white racial frame. In contrast, African Americans get to make a white person eat doo-doo in a movie. Sad indeed is the state of the Black Freedom Struggle in relationship to the arts in the year 2012. Paul Robeson would be proud...yeah right.