By Marc H. Morial
Octavia Spencer brought the gilded audience at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater to its feet Sunday night as she tearfully accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting role for her portrayal of Minny Jackson, a proud, outspoken maid in the Oscar-nominated movie, “The Help.” Ms. Spencer, whose break-out role in “The Help,” comes after years of mostly small parts in dozens of films, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the honor and thanked Steven Spielberg, her home state of Alabama and her fellow cast members, including Viola Davis who was nominated for Best Actress.
Spencer becomes only the 13th African American to win an acting Oscar in the 84-year history of the Academy Awards and just the sixth Black woman since Hattie McDaniel took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940 for her role in “Gone with the Wind.”
We congratulate Octavia Spencer for her achievement. Her performance in “The Help” sheds new light on what life was like for Black women domestics in the South during the dawning days of the 1960s civil rights movement. The dignity and strength of the characters she and Viola Davis portray give new perspective to the unique struggles of African American women, and demonstrate the overwhelming power of faith, community and sisterhood.
We are also encouraged by the Academy Award winning success of previous Black women actors, including Hattie McDaniel, Halle Berry, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson, and Whoopi Goldberg, who have broken the Oscar color and gender barriers. But, this small sorority of Black women Oscar winners makes it clear that Hollywood has a long way to go in diversifying the content of its story-lines as well as the color of its characters, especially for African American women. It might help if the Academy diversified its own ranks. More than 90 percent of its members are white, more than 75 percent are male.
While there have been several movies in recent years like “Red Tails,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Malcolm X” “Glory” and “Invictus” (about the life of Nelson Mandela), that cast black men in heroic roles, there have been few films about black women heroines.
USA Today film critic, Bill Goodykoontz, pointed out in a recent column that, “People of color too often find only narrow aspects of their lives and history represented in mainstream film, if represented at all.”
James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University added, “While we must applaud the outstanding performances by Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer, we cannot ignore the fact that once again African Americans are being recognized in Hollywood for playing limited … roles.”
This fact was not lost on Octavia Spencer who remarked after accepting her award, “I hope it’s the hallmark of more for young, aspiring actresses of color, and by color, I don’t mean just African American. I mean Indian, Native American, Latin American, Asian American. I hope that in some way I can be some sort of beacon of hope…”
We applaud Ms. Spencer for her Academy Award and we echo her desire that Hollywood create more quality roles for deserving Black actors and actresses.