'The Help' Stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer Spark Debate at Oscars 2012 in Black Community About Race in Hollywood

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.


Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

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.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Akil Alleyne

I was born in Toronto, Canada to Trinidadian parents and raised in Montreal. I'm a 2008 graduate of Princeton University and a 2013 graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. My major areas of study are constitutional and international law. I've done some work in radio news reporting and social commentary in print, and I'm currently pursuing a career in either legal analysis at a think tank, other non-profit work or political journalism.

MORE FROM

Minneapolis police chief resigns after fatal shooting of Australian woman

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced in a Facebook post that she is stepping aside.

Mentally ill prisoners in Louisiana forced to bark like dogs for food, lawsuit claims

Investigators came. Everyone was told not to speak to them.

Philando Castile’s mother supports Justine Damond’s family at march in Minneapolis

"We're just here to support the family," she said. "That's all."

Lawyer says Justine Damond is “most innocent” police shooting victim he’s ever seen

Observers were quick to point out that several black children have been killed by police.

A jail in Tennessee is offering reduced sentences for voluntary vasectomies

Eugenics lives on in 2017.

How the media covers “honor killings” in different ways for women of different religions

Experts say these deaths should be viewed as acts of domestic violence.

Minneapolis police chief resigns after fatal shooting of Australian woman

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced in a Facebook post that she is stepping aside.

Mentally ill prisoners in Louisiana forced to bark like dogs for food, lawsuit claims

Investigators came. Everyone was told not to speak to them.

Philando Castile’s mother supports Justine Damond’s family at march in Minneapolis

"We're just here to support the family," she said. "That's all."

Lawyer says Justine Damond is “most innocent” police shooting victim he’s ever seen

Observers were quick to point out that several black children have been killed by police.

A jail in Tennessee is offering reduced sentences for voluntary vasectomies

Eugenics lives on in 2017.

How the media covers “honor killings” in different ways for women of different religions

Experts say these deaths should be viewed as acts of domestic violence.