Writer Akash Nikolas on the buzz surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s role in The Butler:
A win for her would be deserved—she’s wonderful in the film. But it’d also be the latest example of what seems to be a Hollywood maxim: Black women only get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when they play characters who confirm the stereotype of the Sassy Black Lady—bold, sharp-tongued, impertinent.
Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, playing house-slave Mammy who was warm and witty with her slave-owners. Half a century later, Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost by playing Oda Mae Brown, a psychic with no back-story of her own and whose entire purpose was to support a white couple and entertain the audience with sass talk. In recent years, black actresses started winning Best Supporting Actress more frequently. Jennifer Hudson won forDreamgirls by playing Effie White, a diva with too much attitude to remain in a successful pop group and just enough attitude to cover “And I Am Telling You.” Mo’nique won for Precious by playing Mary Lee Johnston, an abusive mother whose sassiness was taken to a monstrous extreme as she terrorized her daughter out of her own fear of being alone and unloved. And Octavia Spencer won for playing The Help’s Minny Jackson, a back-talking maid who fried chicken, cracked jokes, and literally made a racist employer eat shit while her husband beat her.
If Oprah nabs the Oscar, she will have also won by playing sassy, but look closer and you’ll see her role rises above and complicates the stereotype. In her introductory scenes, Gloria is sweet and maternal, and it’s only as the movie progresses that we see her sassiness growing out of resentment—over her husband’s career, over the discord between her son and his father, and over her station in life. In this way, the film actually provides historical context for the sassy black woman, suggesting that she became that way because of decades of inequality. At the same time, the film also offers a modern revision of that role. Gloria feels fleshed-out; she’s not over-the-top, her story is fully explored (and fully her own) and, with the film covering several decades, we get the scope of a complete life lived well into old age.
Image via Entertainment Weekly.
- The Politics Of Being Friends With White People (Salon)
I had only begun to have white friends the year prior when I found myself newly “tracked” into the higher-achieving second grade class based on superior reading ability. Scattered into a predominantly white classroom among only a handful of black students left me desperately wanting to culturally fit in and sound like my peers, especially since the vast majority of black children I knew stayed concentrated in the “B” and “C” tracks. My awkward attempts to fit in resulted in me being teased mercilessly by my black peers, who from then on through the better part of high school both accused and found me guilty of “talking too proper,” “acting white” and, perhaps most egregious of all, “thinking I was white.”
- “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: An Oscar-Worthy Historical Fable (Salon)
I’d be hard-pressed to describe “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as a good movie. It’s programmatic, didactic and shamelessly melodramatic. (Danny Strong’s screenplay is best viewed as fictional, although it’s loosely based on the true story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, who died in 2010.) Characters constantly have expository conversations built around historical markers, from the murder of Emmett Till to the Voting Rights Act. Every time Cecil serves coffee in the Oval Office, he stumbles upon epoch-making moments: Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) debating whether to send federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock; Richard Nixon (John Cusack) plotting a black entrepreneurship program to undercut the Black Panthers; or Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) telling Republican senators he plans to defy Congress and veto sanctions against South Africa. Cecil and Louis, the warring father and son played by Whitaker and Oyelowo, might as well come with labels: Cecil is following in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington; Louis in those of W.E.B. Du Bois.
- 50 Years After the March On Washington: The Economic Impacts on Education (HuffPo Black Voices)
…one of the most troubling aspects of higher education inequality is its economic dimension. A recent paper by Demos found that African Americans are 15 percent more likely to incur debt when obtaining higher education and 15 percent more likely to carry more debt on average. As a consequence, higher education debt is disproportionately weakening African Americans’ retirement savings and household equity, key sources of wealth.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World