Mo’Nique, Bigelow + Oscar: Mixed Feelings

This season’s Academy Awards race, ending with last night’s historic ceremony, was without a doubt the ripest, richest Oscar period in recent memory for popular culture critics to sink their teeth into. A myriad of complex issues relating to gender, race, class and representation were thrust into the public space.

Three of the ten Best Picture nominees–The Blind Side, District 9, and Avatar–battled accusations of racist subtexts within the scope of their film narratives. Kathryn Bigelow became symbolic of the fact that women directors  have rarely been nominated for Oscars and had never won. (But then the issue got sidetracked  by  a trumped up “battle of the exes” narrative, pitting Bigelow against ex-husband James Cameron, director of Avatar and her most formidable rival for Oscar gold.) Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe’s nomination for Best Actress centralized issues for many relating to colorism and sizeism in Hollywood.

Bigelow’s win as Best Director cracked the glass ceiling a bit, but overall women comprised only seven percent of directors of the top 250 films in 2009. Sandra Bullock’s win for Best Actress, worthy as it may be, gives me pause when I  consider her recent filmography: The roles that have won her critical acclaim–Crash and now The Blind Side–are ones in which she plays privileged upper-middle-class White women who have brief or long-lasting encounters with men of color. The former film portrays blatant racism, the latter embraces a “savior” narrative, with those needing saving being poor and Black.

Mo’Nique’s win as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the depraved Mary Jones in Precious–a rare Oscar acting victory for an African American–was the most ambivalent triumph for me and others. As Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux wrote on Facebook, “Is Mo’Nique’s Oscar a victory or setback for our community? I say it is a personal victory for her but a community setback and I long for days when we can have positive portrayals of black women on film!”  I’ve also thought deeply about how the the Oscar-winning characters played by African American women are conceived to be so wretchedly two-dimensional.

Frequent political commentator and professor Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell tweeted today , “I’m thrilled for Mo’Nique. Her speech was amazing & moving, her performance was riveting and brave. But Precious and The Blind Side wins together were a double gut-punch for representations of black motherhood. Precious and Blind Side felt like [Hollywood] saying black women are wretched, abusive monsters, thank God good, white women will save their kids.”

Mo’Nique’s ode in her acceptance speech to Hattie McDaniel, the first Black women to win an Oscar, was resonant and impactful, but how much have Oscar-winning representations of Black women changed since McDaniel’s long-ago performance in Gone With the Wind?

There is cause to celebrate after this year’s Academy Award ceremony but there is also cause to engage in deep reflection and, frankly, disappointment. History was made last night, but there can also be an argument  that in many ways the Academy, and by association our culture, is remaining stagnant, especially when it comes to issues of race and gender.

Image courtesy of flickr user daverugby83/ / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. I have always been confused about what a positive betrayal of black women would look like. Is it one that pretends that black women have not suffered from the effects of institutional racism and sexism? Is it one that makes black women seem like white women in black skin? Is it one that makes black women into perfect mothers?

    Mo’nique’s performance was certainly a “personal victory” for her as it also gave voice to the secrets and pain in some black women’s lives that we do not want to acknowledge. I don’t know if that is positive, but it seems real. Mary Jones seemed damaged, complicated and overwhelmed. I think we need to heal and healing only occurs when we are in reality, not when we are overly concerned with “fronting” for folks who have demonstrated time and time again that they have little interest in our humanity.

    I think Mo’nique kept it real.

  2. Caroline Heldman says:

    This is great analysis of “subtle” racism of the Academy Awards. To add a few more examples to the list, Denzel Washington finally won an Oscar for his portrayal of a corrupt police officer in Training Day, and Halle Berry received an Academy Award for playing an abusive mother in Monster’s Ball. These are just a few more examples of awarding black actors portraying characters that uphold negative stereotypes.

  3. evamckend says:

    Wow Professor Harriford, I have to quote that on my facebook! So spot on.

    “I think we need to heal and healing only occurs when we are in reality, not when we are overly concerned with “fronting” for folks who have demonstrated time and time again that they have little interest in our humanity.”

  4. Thanks for a great post! I share your ambivalent feelings about these Oscar wins. You make such great points regarding Bullock’s win for portraying a privileged white woman as savior. That, along with the dismally anti-feminist The Proposal tarnishes her win a bit – yet I put these issues at the foot of the “big wigs” who make/produce the films. Her speech saved it for me, showing she cares about issues of equity and justice. Mo-nique’s speech was another highlight but, like you, I am saddened black women are portrayed as in need of saving and white men (and sometimes women) are portrayed as the saviors — Avatar and The Blind Side being prime examples of this meme…

  5. Hatshepsitu Tull says:

    great analysis! the savior theme in blind side and the fact that most of the redeeming characters in precious are fair skinned are rehashes of too many old movies.

  6. lisaguido says:

    Diane Harriford is so right on, THANK YOU.

    I’d like to point out that the essence of PUSH/Precious is Precious taking charge of her own narrative – life-changing literacy, writing and rewriting her own story. Precious is a character that redeems herself, and that is deep. She’s a total self-made triumph-against-the-odds hero! Sorry to see folks stuck at the complexion narrative.

    Congratulations on the new writing venue, Courtney!

  7. One of the issues I have with the recent Oscar nominations and wins of black women is that it shows a clear bias in Hollywood for a certain depiction of black women in film. The black woman before Monique to win the Oscar was Jennifer Hudson’s role in Dreamgirls. While her performance was most definitely amazing, she was an angry dis-enfranchised woman for the majority of the movie. This is a recurring theme through out nominations for not only black women, but for black actors and actresses in general. Either angry or struggling black people: Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitacker, ect. The same character shows up time after time.

  8. Helen Haft says:

    It was interesting that during Kathryn Bigelow’s speech she didn’t thank a single woman, or if she did there were only one or two. It became apparent that the majority of the people who worked with her on the film were men. While it is great that a woman won best director, we need to be careful not to obscure this with the idea that a huge barrier has been broken. While on the surface this may be true, we need to look beyond this and look at what is being done to help other women overcome the more common obstacles that they encounter on a daily basis.

  9. It’s interesting that this year’s Best Picture nominees were nearly all overtly political–-even if the political execution of most ended up being enormously racist in their respective white savior complexes (The Blind Side, District 9, and Avatar)–-and military-themed, because I think it shows where we are as a country. And the fact that The Hurt Locker, which I view as deeply feminist and anti-war in its depiction of the dangers of unchecked masculinity (with the caveat that I understand others why don’t see it this way), won is something I think we should be proud of.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Yes, I agree with post citing that Kathryn Bigelow did not thank a single woman — it was very striking to me when I watched her accept the Oscar — a sharp contrast to Barbra Streisand’s presentation of the award, as well as her own views of how hard Hollywood is on women directors — apparently one of the first movies she tried to direct in the U.S. was not a good experience because the crew did not obey her directions without grumbling and shuffling their feet. In the Chicago Tribune, they wrote an article about her being the first woman director to win an Oscar and she declined to be interviewed because she didn’t want to speak out being the first woman director to win. And in the Los Angeles Times they state that: “It’s therefore striking, maybe ironic, that throughout her career Bigelow has quietly avoided attempts to define, or limit, her by relating her gender to her films.” I get it, she is trying not to be a “whiny” woman (or call attention to her “otherness”), which might result in being shunned in a male-dominated industry, she is just trying to fly under the radar, but the truth is in an industry where only 7% of the big-studio films were directed by women, it’s obviously hard to succeed as a woman. Additionally, her movie is about war and male experiences within war, so it doesn’t even really speak to women, so it is almost not really a historical win for women — it’s another win for war and its glorification that just happened to incidentally be directed by a woman. A woman who doesn’t want to identify with women and the real experiences we encounter in a patriarchal society.

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