Commentary: Hollywood’s Complex Relationship With Black Actors

Why do the Oscars spotlight the same images of African-Americans?

Posted: 02/27/2012 05:23 AM EST
Octavia Spencer, Hattie McDaniel, Viola Davis, Academy Awards, Black Hollywood, Oscars

The Academy Awards has always maintained a complicated relationship with Black actors, especially with the African-American actress. The images that Hollywood have awarded our actors for over eight decades of the Oscars doesn’t fully embody the African-American experience. And many argue that the stereotypes associated with Blacks are the images continually recognized and honored in Hollywood.


Back in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win the Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, it was a groundbreaking moment in Academy history. But fast forward 72 years to 2012 when Octavia Spencer won the very same award McDaniel did — Best Supporting Actress and for also playing a domestic in the period ensemble drama The Help — it’s eye-opening proof that as much as we've progressed, we still haven’t come that far.


Regardless of the mixed feelings some audiences may have about these depictions, ultimately we never bash the actor, they just accept the roles offered so that they may live to work another day in Tinsletown. But critics have given the side-eye to the Hollywood dream factory, the one whose only production line seems to churn out the same kinds of roles for our actors year after year. The type of characters that often lack the diversity, depth and complexity of their white counterparts.


Still many wonder why Hollywood feels so comfortable continually nominating and rewarding us for playing the monster, the domestic and the magic Negro alongside the great biopics that many of our actors occasionally get the opportunity to portray. While I’m not sure of that answer, I’m still hopeful that a change will come. Disappointed that an actress of Viola Davis’s breadth and caliber could lose the Best Actress Academy Award to anyone, it remains my dream that when she finally wins that gold statue, Hollywood will reward her in this early-2000 era for playing a character who is much more than a maid.


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(Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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