2012/02/25 5 Comments
Ms. Magazine, in its online edition of Feb. 23, 2012, offers an excellent article on the struggle of black actresses to find suitable roles in Hollywood films, from the very beginning to the present day.
The discussion is prompted by the current nominations of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively. Should Davis or Spencer win, there will be much discussion of the fact that the first black person (of either sex) to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel. She won the Academy Award in 1939 as Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. The issue at hand is that McDaniel, Davis and Spencer are all cited for playing characters who are maids.
Author Janell Hobson writes about the struggles of the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Lena Horne to avoid being recast as an “exotic” (read “Latin”) instead of as a black woman. To her ultimate credit, Horne flatly refused and saw her film career wither.
Hobson discusses “Soundies,” musical performances by singers like Lena Horne and, especially, Big Bands such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra.When Hobson mentions “Soundies” she does it as a link to our story of June, 2009. (Link here: thejazzmonger on “Soundies”)
It is very gratifying to have an eminent publication such as Ms. cite our work.
Turning to the current controversy about film roles, let me say that I think it is a mistake to criticize, or otherwise demean, the roles and excellent performances presented by both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. The story told in The Help, book and movie both, is a good one. Their two characters are strong, vividly-drawn and, without doubt, women who are far more than their occupations. We should not be seeking to eliminate the existence of maids in films that depict an earlier time. What we need are stories, scripts and films that give life to people and stories of women who are not maids.
American-made movies have always had a dearth of strong roles for women, all women, really, but for black women, in particular. For a short period in American film history, there was a coterie of dominant actresses (Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner) who “carried” films. IT was their name and, often, their name only that was above the title. The entire film was the story of the character, a woman, being portrayed by one of these preeminent actresses.
Consider just a couple of films from these four giants of an earlier era:
What happened? Why did great stories and meaty roles disappear, for the most part, from American films? Sure, Meryl Streep is nominated every three or four years, and wins about as often. But too often she is getting the Best Actress nomination for films like Postcards from the Edge, Music of the Heart or The Devil Wears Prada. It was all the way back in 1985, in Out of Africa, that we last saw her stretch in a role that carried the entire film. I f an actress of Meryl Streep’s talent and stature can’t find a truly outstanding role in more than 25 years, what hope does a raft of talented but relatively unknown actresses have?
The problem, my friends, is the lack of books & scripts about women. Isak Denisen’s book, Out of Africa, was published in 1937. Denisen (real name Karen Blixen) was a marvelous story-teller with a unique and intriguing personal history on which to draw.
One has to think that there are good stories about women, and women’s lives, that are just being passed over by Hollywood brass in favor of cartoon boys, remakes about CIA operatives