Most Blacks Have Mixed Feelings About Viola Davis Not Getting Best Actress Oscar

OscarsDespite torrents of debate among
African-Americans over the merits of the segregation-era movie “The
Help,” most still hoped that Viola Davis, who plays a maid, would become
just the second black winner of the best actress Oscar.

Pictured: Viola
Davis, right, and Julius Tennon at the Governors Ball following the
84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in the Hollywood section
of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

And so there was
widespread disappointment when Davis lost the Academy Award to Meryl
Streep on Sunday night. Still, ambivalence tinged the reaction: Besides
regret that the ranks of black Oscar winners remained small, many felt
relief that a role viewed as stereotypical was not honored.

“Oohhhhhhhnnnnnnooooooooooooooo,” wailed Robinne Lee on Twitter.

a black actress who has appeared in films such as “Seven Pounds” and
“Hotel for Dogs,” said in an interview that Streep embodies excellence
and deserved to win. “But Viola had so much hype this year, and there
was so much excitement, and it conjured up so much controversy in the
black community about this role … so (the loss) was disappointing.”

Lee felt a mix of emotions, since she is eager to see more diverse
movie casts in a wider variety of roles. Adding to the conundrum was the
best supporting actress victory of Octavia Spencer, who played another
maid in “The Help.”

Prior to Sunday, only 13
black actors had won Hollywood’s highest honor in the Oscars’ 84-year
history. Only Halle Berry had been chosen best actress, for playing a
wounded soul who finds solace in the arms of a white man in “Monster’s

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the
first African-American to win an Oscar, for a supporting role as a maid
called Mammy in the Dixie-glorifying “Gone With the Wind.” Since then, a
high percentage of black Oscar nominees and winners have played
characters such as slaves, African despots, welfare recipients,
dysfunctional mothers, drug-addicted musicians or drug-dealing cops.

Spencer’s award, maid roles are responsible for two of the six Oscars
won by black actresses. Streep, meanwhile, earned the third Oscar of her
transcendent career for playing former British Prime Minister Margaret

Which made Lee wonder: “How
inspiring would it be if we could be nominated in roles where we are
playing kings, queens, politicians, writers, artists, dancers … we
could soar.”

The debate over “The Help” made Hollywood’s racial issues a recurring theme of Oscar night.

a skit about what actors were thinking, host Billy Crystal imagined
this for Davis: “I want to thank my writer and director for creating the
role of a strong black woman that wasn’t played by Tyler Perry.” He
also quipped: “When I came out of `The Help’ I wanted to hug the first
black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.”

an animation award, Chris Rock said the voice genre allowed fat women
to play skinny or a wimp to play a gladiator. “And if you’re a black
man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can’t play white, oh my God!”

Rock’s observation resonated with Monika Brooks, a diversity consultant and self-described “movie dork.”

“The problem is not that Davis played a maid,” she said. “The problem is there’s not more black people in really good roles.”

if any, black Hollywood executives have the power to “green-light” a
film for production. Of the 5,765 people who vote on the Oscars, nearly
94 percent are white and 77 percent are male, according to a new Los
Angeles Times study. The median voter age is 62.

why Brooks was not surprised by “The Help” being made or crestfallen
when Davis didn’t win: “Whoever writes the checks writes the rules.”

the Oscars approached, “The Help” was lambasted in some quarters of the
black community. Many perceived it as another instance of black
characters being “saved” by whites, or of serving only as vehicles to
improve and enlighten white lives.

“Think of
Will Smith in `The Legend of Bagger Vance,’ Michael Clarke Duncan in
`The Green Mile,’ Anthony Mackie in `The Adjustment Bureau’ and Sir
Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus in `The Matrix,'” said Toure, the cultural
commentator who uses just one name, writing in Time.

the screenwriter and author James McBride: “It’s the same old story:
Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens.”

Watching “The Help” was torture for Toure. But as a black man, he was disappointed that Davis lost.

hated the film but respect Viola’s immense talent,” he said in an
interview. “I wanted her to get recognition for her talent and to get
the power that comes with winning.”

Oakland activist and journalist Davey D said it seemed like a
contradiction for critics to slam the film but support Davis and

“Y’all should be happy the maid flick didn’t win,” he tweeted. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to “The Artist.”

fear was Viola winning or `The Help’ winning would’ve validated keeping
alive an image that many black folks found stereotypical, inaccurate
and overall problematic,” he said in an interview. “A win was seen as a

Not for Barbara Young, who has
worked for 17 years as a domestic worker and is an organizer for the
National Domestic Workers Alliance. Watching the film, Young cried when
Davis’ character was separated from a white child – she had endured
several such partings in real life.

traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an Oscar viewing party
organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. When Streep’s name
was called instead of Davis’, the room of 50 people let out a huge

“It was a very sad situation in that
room,” said Young, an immigrant from Barbados. “I was disappointed, but I
was very grateful to the producers of the movie for bringing domestic
work to the forefront.”

She saw a simple reason for the criticism of the maid role: “It’s not recognized as real work.”

Davis certainly knows that it’s real work – her mother and grandmother both toiled as maids.

Oscar season, Davis consistently advocated for a wider range of black
roles. “I’ve played a lot of drug addicts,” she said in an interview
with Terry Gross of NPR.

And she told Tavis
Smiley that black people who are ambivalent about “The Help” have a
mindset that is “absolutely destroying the black artist,” because it
forces black actors to water down their performances – to avoid
character flaws that might offend oversensitive black audiences.

black artist cannot live in the place – in a revisionist place,” Davis
told Smiley. “The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity,
and humanity is messy.”

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at or jwashington(at)