Actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer of the Oscar nominated film, The Help, may be front-runners for acting statues this year . But the recognition of their performances has done little to quell some of the controversy that surrounds the film as the Academy Awards approach.
Lehigh University’s director of Africana Studies James Peterson in on the film, whose controversy stems not from the film’s narrative of 1960s-era domestic workers in a racially divided South. The buzz is coming from the film’s romantic approach to a turbulent time in America, the role the film’s central white character plays, and Hollywood’s overall lack of roles for black actors outside villains and domestic help.
“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 and/or demeaning roles. Sadly, the layers of these limitations go to the historical inaccuracies and the glossed-over inequities of both the film and the book," Peterson said.
“The Help's one-sided, romanticized depiction of African American domestic workers ignores the painful struggles that many women of color have endured at the hands of their white employers. And this, unfortunately underscores the state of Hollywood for African Americans. While some progress has been made, Hollywood has a long way to go in order to present the full range of women of color on the big screen and for African Americans in general. In order to get better we have to move away from the limited depictions of black life (sometimes produced by black executives) and professionally nurture more women, African Americans, and other people of color as writers, producers, and executives. Only then will Hollywood realize its fullest potential to provide substantive entertainment for the 21st Century world.”
How do we convince Hollywood to move away from its limited depictions of black life?
“This is a difficult question to answer. Consider the challenges that George Lucas (George Lucas?!?!) had in trying to fund Red Tails.” Red Tails is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black World War II fighter pilot squad.
“And this is NOT an issue of consumer ticket sales. Black folk disproportionately spend their disposable income at the movies. Like so many of our institutions, Hollywood is dominated by white males. In these kinds of environments we need radical efforts to bring gender and racial equality to the Hollywood production structure.
“Foundational funds need to be raised and set aside for women and people of color to attend film school and film industry school; Spike Lee should be granted 'green-light' ability for the remainder of his career. Documentary film makers (especially folk like Byron Hurt, Nzingha Stewart, and Tanji Gilliam) should be supported by equality-based Hollywood initiatives. Documentary film is one of the most efficient ways to offset the overabundance of stereotypical imagery in Hollwood films. Hollywood studios should also be 'incentivized' to collaborate with consultants and scholars who are both sensible about women's issues, violence in the media, negative racial depictions AND sensitive to the shifting demographics of this country - clearly reflected in the 2010 census data. If we can take these few steps then we might begin to address the ingrained biases in Hollywood.”