As the 84th Academy Awards loom, the stars of The Help, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, stand a good chance of taking home the Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The prospect of such wins by two African-American actresses has excited many, given the Awards’ history of short-changing Black actors generally.
Yet ironically, the Black community has expressed mixed feelings about Davis’ and Spencer’s nominations. Many African-Americans have bemoaned the fact that once again, Black actors are being rewarded for depicting subjugated servants viewed through a Caucasian prism, rather than for more uplifting roles. Unfortunately, this is largely unavoidable in a majority-Caucasian country; the Black community will have to rely on self-financing to make sure that our stories are properly told at the movies.
Black intellectuals have been especially hard on The Help for its relegation of Black actors to subservient roles. Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer recently fought back in a memorable exchange with Tavis Smiley in which Ms. Davis told him, “That mindset you have is destroying Black artists.” The Oscar nominees argued that for artistic reasons, Black actors need to be free to take on the widest possible range of roles — even unflattering roles — just like any other actors. Moreover, for business reasons, they cannot afford to restrict themselves to playing roles that cast African-Americans in the best possible light.
Critics of Hollywood’s neglect of Black actors look too much at cinema’s artistic core and not enough at its commercial dimension. It is said that the problem with film as a business is that it’s an art, but the problem with film as an art is that it’s a business. Hollywood gives Black actors a raw deal for reasons of profitability: Not enough moviegoers are willing to pay to see African-Americans in lead roles. Producer/director George Lucas has confirmed this, publicly admitting that he had to pay out of pocket to produce and distribute the recent film Red Tails — based on the story of the African-American Tuskegee Airmen of World War II — because major film studios refused to do so. What’s more, Hollywood insiders have noted that even Black moviegoers don’t turn out in large numbers to see “Black movies” with insufficient entertainment value.
This speaks to a discomfiting reality that must be addressed in order to make sense of this issue: People are generally more likely to respond to stories featuring characters to whom they can relate culturally. As long as the United States remains a mostly non-Black country, this will continue to discourage Hollywood from investing in Black-oriented productions — and understandably so. Movie studios are not charities; we can hardly expect them to turn out unprofitable films simply to pay tribute to the African-American experience.
We ignore the “business” in “show business” at our own peril. Wealthy Black actors and filmmakers — and sympathizers like George Lucas — will have to step up to the plate and finance the telling of our tales independently. This would mirror the financial intervention of a number of Black celebrities to rescue Spike Lee’s cash-strapped Malcolm X from cancellation a generation ago, only on a larger scale. Such collective self-reliance would be a welcome development for the Black community — and the best way to do our brightest stars justice on the silver screen.
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