“Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer” (2012) is an episode of the Tavis Smiley television talk show that appeared February 10th 2012, two weeks before the Oscars where Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer had their names put up for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for their parts in “The Help” (2011). They talked about the relationship between the black image and the black artist in Hollywood.
Smiley was proud of Davis and Spencer and hoped they would both win Oscars and yet -
And yet he did not like that they would win for playing maids – more than 70 years after Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for playing, guess what, a maid in “Gone with the Wind” (1939).
He compared it to Denzel Washington. Washington has played black heroes, like Malcolm X and Hurricane Carter, but guess what he won an Oscar for? For playing a dirty, evil, low-down cop in “Training Day” (2001).
Davis said that Smiley and blacks with his mindset are absolutely destroying the black artist. Black artists must be truth tellers, not politicians. When they become too concerned with image and message, they wash the humanity right out of black characters, who become noble but boring – and unrealistic. Humanity is messy. Blacks are messy – like in an August Wilson play.
Smiley said the example of August Wilson makes his very point: in Wilson’s plays you see the full range of black humanity, the good and the bad and everything in between. That balance is missing from Hollywood.
Smiley blamed the distributors, using the example of George Lucas’s “Red Tails” (2012): in the time of a black president no Hollywood distributor would touch a film about black male heroes – and yet they have no trouble with one about black maids. Lucas had to use his own money to get his film in cinemas. Very few people have that kind of money.
Spencer blamed ticket buyers: If you do not pay to see black films like “Pariah” (2011) then you are part of what is wrong. Surely there is enough black talent, brains and money to set things right if people truly cared that much about it.
Davis said it goes way deeper than that: 350 years of racist policies in America have left blacks with a pain and an anger that they are not willing to let go of.
When black scriptwriters approach her to play a part in a film it is almost always the same character: a highly unattractive black mother from the ghetto who speaks Ebonics. It is far more insulting than some of the the parts whites give her.
She said that those who are good at putting forth a positive black image have no staying power. They come and go in the space of two years. They do not stick it out like her and Spencer and Cicely Tyson and Aunjanue Ellis.
Smiley said there is a difference between anger and righteous indignation. He is not angry: he just wants a more level playing field.
- PBS: Tavis Smiley: Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer
- The Help
- Red Tails
- Monster’s Ball – the film for which Halle Berry won Best Actress
- black actresses
- house Negro
- The blackness of American television
- internalized racism
- Do Hollywood stereotypes of blacks matter?
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print
- Langston Hughes: The Negro artist and the Racial Mountain