SENTINEL 3-1-2012
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Gone with the...Help?

Octavia Spencer plays Hattie McDaniel

The Firpo Files

(Sentinel, March 1-7, 2012)


Congratulations to Octavia Spencer for winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as "Minny" in the Oscar-nominated film The Help (2011).

At the Awards show this past Sunday, February 26, 2012, Octavia was up against stiff competition in the persons of Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), all in contention for the gold standard.

Curiously, Octavia's "Minny" bears a striking resemblance to "Mammie" as played by Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actress to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the multiple-Academy Award-winning movie Gone with the Wind (1939).

Both Mammie and Minny were rotund subservient domestic workers who served in a segregated South.  Not much has changed in Hollywood in the seven-plus decades between Octavia's Oscar statuette and Hattie's small plaque-style Oscar. (The statuette was not awarded to Best Supporting Actors and Actresses at the time.)

In this latest issuance, a zaftig Black maid is also rewarded for ‘supporting' attractive White Southern Belles.

"The Help" for Hattie: Hollywood's obsession with dark-skinned, or, "Aunt Jemima-type" actresses for Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique, 2009; Jennifer Hudson, 2006; Whoopi Goldberg, 1991) manifested itself yet again with Octavia's win. At least Babylon is consistent. Hattie had already set the standard.

Actually, she established a number of Black firsts. Having appeared in over 300 films (only 80 of which she received credit), Hattie was the first Black person to win an Academy Award; the first Black person to be nominated for Best Acting; the first Black actress to win Best Supporting Actress; and the oldest Black actress to win an Academy Award (age 44).

Although Black actors "were consistently required to speak in contrived stereotypical ‘Negro dialects'" (Wikipedia), Hattie was a cultured woman. She belonged to Sigma Gamma Rho, one of only four Black sororities countrywide. Octavia also made numerous films, and graduated from Auburn with a bachelor's degree.

In 1931 Hattie played "Hi-Hat Hattie," ‘a bossy maid who forgets her place,' on a KNX Radio show here in LA, a character that was the forerunner of "Florence Johnston" as played by Marla Gibbs on The Jeffersons. Hattie's first two film roles (in 1932 and 1933) were as "plump black maids." Mae West, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart were among luminaries she worked with.

Prejudice at the Premiere: When Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Black actors were barred from attending, and were also excluded from the souvenir program.

In spite of Georgia's segregationist laws producer David Selznick tried to get Hattie admitted; and an angry Clark Gable--a friend she had worked with before--threatened to boycott.

But she convinced him to attend. About two weeks later she attended the Hollywood debut and was featured prominently.

Help Aplenty for Minny: In pigheaded Tinsel Town tradition, its affinity for robust Black maids allowed Octavia to make her mark.

She has also played a nurse, caretaker, ex-con, and pesky immigration agent. Her credits include roles in Moesha, Ugly Betty, and other sitcoms; dramas like Chicago Hope, Roswell, and The X-Files; and features like A Time to Kill (1998), Big Momma's House (2000), Beauty Shop (2005), and Seven Pounds (2008).

Helping Themselves?: One can only conclude that fairness and equity for Blacks in Hollywood has been Gone with the Wind for a long as Babylon has been in existence. And victory for Black Oscar winners has been bittersweet.

"For [Blacks], the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood's systemic racial stereotypes would find work and success there," bemoans Wikipedia.   

To Blacks who criticized her for being a "sellout" Hattie reportedly retorted: "Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

Intriguingly, Octavia, too, received criticism from the Black community for her role as maid in The Help.  

Conclusion: Indeed, Octavia Spencer and other industry Blacks have concluded that something is better than nothing.

They reason that "a live dog is better off than a dead lion," believing that in adopting a lower profile they can live to fight another day.--Ecclesiastes 9:4, New World Translation.

The fact is, all casualties of the racist juggernaut that is Hollywood--including frustrated Blacks and sympathetic Whites--should embrace the immortal words of Stevie Wonder when he sang, Heaven Help Us All (1970). Ultimately, heaven will.

In the meantime, peace and blessings to all. Amen.