The black community has long had a love-hate relationship with the Academy Awards. Hollywood’s highest honors have only recently started to become more inclusive and even still, the black performances they’ve chosen to recognize are often polarizing and controversial.
Hattie McDaniel famously won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as ‘Mammy’ in ‘Gone With The Wind’. She was not allowed to attend the premiere of the film in Atlanta. When she won the Oscar in 1940, she was allowed to attend the ceremony…and was seated in a segregated section.
The snubbing of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ raised many eyebrows. A huge critical and commercial success and a total change from what anyone in the world thought ‘Spielberg’ meant in terms of film with an electrifying cast and incredible performances. ‘The Color Purple’ garnered an amazing 11 nominations…and won an equally amazing total of ‘zilch’.
Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ was hailed as ‘revolutionary’ and the boldest statement made on race-relations on film when it was released 1989. It introduced a bold new auteur and voice to the masses, yet it saw no nominations. For a little salt in the wound, ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ won Best Picture that year.
Halle Berry picked up her Oscar for Best Actress for her role in ‘Monster’s Ball’ in 2002. That’s not the source of the controversy. Many have stated openly that it wasn’t really that strong of a performance and Berry was rewarded for the sexually explicit nature of some scenes, which some people found quite demeaning.
Also, in 2002, Denzel Washington picked up his first Best Actor Oscar, after winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for ‘Glory’. With legendary performances of strong Black men in ‘X’ and ‘The Hurricane’, the idea that Denzel won his first leading man Oscar for “going bad” in what many would call an “undignified” role ruffled some feathers.
In what some people thought had to be a miscount, misread cue-card, or a joke, Three Six Mafia picked up the Best Original Song Oscar for ‘It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp’ from ‘Hustle And Flow’. They made history by becoming the first rap act to win an Oscar, but many thought the lyrics, film it came from and song were generally in poor taste.
And we come full circle to this year’s awards, where Viola Davis is expected to win the Best Actress Oscar tonight in what is the biggest commercial success of all the Best Picture nominees, ‘The Help’. ‘The Help’ has been yet another polarizing movie within the Black community, with some people seeing the dignified strength of Viola Davis’ character and others cringing at the idea of yet another African-American being rewarded by The Academy for playing a servant of some kind.