by C. A. Jude Stewart
Two weeks ago, “The Help” didn’t get all the help (Oscar votes) it needed to win the big enchilada (best picture).
And as Fats Domino (& Dave Bartholemew) sang in their No. 1 hit single for Imperial Records (recorded in N’awlins, LA) in 1955, “Ain’t that A Shame.”
Why? “The Help” certainly was the best picture of 2011, despite all the Hollywood hooplah, Weinstein hype & elitist hyperbole for Scorsese’s “Hugo”, Spielberg’s “War Horse”, Woody’s “Midnight in Paris” & Mike Hazanavious’ ode-to-silent-1920s-Hollywood’s winning “The Artist”. All good films, mind you. Just not nearly as riveting & powerful as “The Help.” Not by a long shot.
But there was good news for black folks who love movies at the 84th annual Oscars on February 26.
Octavia Spencer won for best supporting actress, although her co-star Viola Davis lost as best actress to 17-time Oscar nominee (& 3-time winner) Meryl Streep. Only Kate Hepburn (4) has won more Oscars.
“Undefeated” won Oscar’s best documentary, a movie about an all-black, poor Manassas HS football team coached by an unpaid white volunteer in N. Memphis, Tenn. It was “The Blind Side” without rich white folks (Tim McGraw, Sandra Bullock) playing hero all by themselves. Winning this category doesn’t remove the stain of Hollywood’s shameful neglect of 1993’s shattering “Hoop Dreams”, which wasn’t even nominated that year but found a 2nd life on ESPN.
Spencer’s triumph marks the 3rd black woman in 6 years to win best supporting actress—a positively historic Oscar trend. In 2009, Mo’Nique won for “Precious”, while Jennifer Hudson took home gold for “Dreamgirls” in 2006.
How is this progress? From Oscar’s origin (May, 1929) to 1991 — a period of 63 years — 8 black actresses were nominated. Only 2 won: Hattie McDaniel (1940, “Gone With the Wind”) & Whoopi Goldberg (1991, “Ghost’).
Over the past 21 years, 0f 9 black supporting actresses were nominated, 3 won—all since 2006. Plus, Halle Berry (a biracial actress) won best actress for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”—the 1st (& still only) black woman to ever win a best actress statuette.
Historically, black actors have fared slightly better than black actresses. Morgan Freeman’s been nominated 5 times, but won once (“Million Dollar Baby”, supporting actor, 2004). Denzel’s been tabbed 4 times, won twice (“Training Day”, best actor, 2001; “Glory”, supporting actor, 1989) — but deserved gold for 1992’s “Malcolm X” & “Hurricane” (1999).
Even the inimitable Sidney Poitier was only nominated twice (1958, “The Defiant Ones”; 1964, “Lillies of the Field”, which he won for Best Actor—the 1st black to ever do so). He certainly deserved Oscars for 3 classic movies: as an racially-impugned Philly detective in the Deep South’s “In the Heat of the Night”; his piercing turn as a compassionate British teacher of poor white British HS trash & blokes in “To Sir With Love”; & his controversial doctor/inter-marriage partner in the landmark “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (but they all came out in the same year, 1967!)
We mustn’t forget the Oscar-winning brothers who followed Sidney’s historic best-actor victory 50-years ago: Lou Gossett Jr (1982, “Officer & Gentleman”, partly set here in Pensacola’s NAS); Denzel (1989; “Glory”); Cuba Gooding Jr (1996, “Jerry McGuire); & Morgan (“Million Dollar Baby, 2004); all 4 won as best supporting actors.
Over a 5-year period (2002-2006), 3 blacks won best actor Oscars; Denzel (“Training Day”, 2001); Jamie Foxx (“Ray”, 2004); and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”, 2006). Considering that in the previous 73 years (1929-2001) only 1 black actor (Sidney in “Lillies”, 1964) won a Best Actor Oscar: that’s progress.
Finally, 2 black performers received Oscars last month: James Earl Jones (“The Great White Hope”, 1970; lifetime achievement Oscar) & Oprah (“She gotz ALLLLLLLL the money, honey”) Winfrey (humanitarian award). This was the first time that honorary Oscars were given exclusively to black performers.
It sometimes feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace. But I declare to you, my PV readers & TCM-classic movie buffs alike, progress is being made in the 21st century American black entertainment/film industries.
And that’s a wonderful thing, no matter (as MJ, The Gloved One so brilliantly sang) if you’re black or white.