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.