Well another year of pagentry has come and gone and one thing that the Academy remains faithful to is their committment to honor the Black maid. Can you imagine if half of all the awards that White women earned were for their role as burger flipper? I'm pretty sure you can't. That would be because White women can be nominated as; crusaders for social justice, rape victims, heads of state, Queens, nuns, ballerinas, and mothers.
Black women, not so much. At this point it is pretty clear, that even if Hollywood decided to make a movie about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's rise to power and her Peace Prize, if she had a maid that's who would be recognized.
Hattie McDaniel won her award back in 1940, for what I'm told was a really funny turn as Scarlett O'hara's maid. Funny she is called a maid for the part of a slave. I guess some people have problems with the distinction, but one generally gets paid while the other doesn't. But that reason for calling Hattie's character a maid, may lie in some of the other Black women who have either won or not the little gold man.
After Hattie's win there was a long drought before another Black woman was able to take the prize statue home. The next would be Whoopee Goldberg for her turn as a fake psychic (criminal) in the movie Ghost.This may have represented a turning point in how Hollywood viewed Black women. Now we could be rewarded for roles as "maids" and crooks. The spectrum which we were being viewed was a ying-- caretakers-- and yang --takers-- but whatever goes in between, was rarely acknowledged and certainly not feted.
Before Goldberg won in 1991 there was a triple nomination in 1985 for Oprah as Sophia (a woman forced to be a maid), Margaret Avery as Shug (the whore juke joint singer), and Whoopee as Celie (the abused wife) inThe Color Purple. Oprah and Margaret were nominated for supporting roles while Whoopee was nominated for her star turn. Earlier I said that the distinction between appearing to be a willing maid and being forced to be one seems to weigh heavily here as Oprah didn't win. Her Sophia clearly was beaten and imprisoned into submitting to maid work: and the rule to winning for a maid's role is you have to wanna be one.
The Academy was on a roll in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. In those years Black women stretched themselves a bit more. Sophie Okonedo the second Black Brit to be nominated (none of them for maids roles) played a supportive wife in Hotel Rhwanda. Jennifer Hudson won her Best Supporting Actress award for Effie the Dream Girl in 2006. Ruby Dee was nominated for her turn as Mama Lucas in American Gangster in 2007. And in 2008 Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress for their turns as mothers. In 2009 Monique would win for her role as an abusive mother in Precious.
Of course winning the Best Supporting role seems to cancel out any chance of a nominated co-star winning the top prize as it has never happened to a set of Black actresses. However, Hattie McDaniel and Vivian Leigh did each receive one for Gone With The Wind for the different catagories. Which brings us back around to 2011 nominees and winners. Black women didn't move far from the mammy, maid, or slave roles from 1939 to 2011. We certainly haven't been recognized for our work as; social workers, sex symbols, lawyers, movement leaders, politicians, Queens, heads of state, or journalists. In 2011 we have come full circle to Octavia Spencer bringing something new and different to the role of the Black maid, and being rewarded for her effort. I can't tell you as a Black woman how grateful I am to Hollywood, for their continuing effort to present Black woman as woman. I mean it, I can't tell you.