The Politics of Octavia Spencer’s Win

The Politics of Octavia Spencer’s Win


In the wake of Octavia Spencer’s astonishing Oscar win last night, the conversation is bound to come up.  And it will be rather difficult having that conversation without the general reaction that some folks are just not happy for the success of others.

But, that conversation is happening – whispered quietly or laughed about even as many of us clapped while Spencer nervously accepted her gold prize.  It’s not the result of petty disregard for Spencer or envious hate.  Disclaimer: I’m a dude who is heavily into dark dude flicks with creative action sequences.  So, it’s not that I’m unhappy for Spencer.  It’s just that we can’t avoid recognition of the obvious socio-political dimensions attached to her win.

For the record … ok … I liked The Help.  It was actually a strong, well-acted movie when I finally pushed myself to watch it.  It had an almost edgy, made-for-Cannes feel to it.  It wasn’t the best, but it was good.  I’m very picky about what I spend time to watch (unless my 7 year old wants to catch the HBO re-run of Rio during a chill weekend – but, even that was good).

Before then, however, it was the refusal to put any hard-earned money towards watching it on the big screen; movies these days – even at matinee prices – are ridiculously expensive.  Better to wait for On Demand or Netflix as a cost saving measure.  But, to put cash into a flick with suspicious themes around it was a tough decision, regardless of how many Black actresses it seemed to support.  Consumers should be discriminating about what movies are worth the expense, anyway.  My reasoning was that The Help could wait till DVD or Blue Ray.

Ultimately, the film exceeded expectations in terms of pure acting and plot quality – but, the skepticism remained.  While the history of Black domestic help is a story that is there whether we like it or not (my Grandmother was in the middle of it), the timing of a blockbuster film about it warrants the Third Eye.  Here we’re celebrating a film about lower than low wage, oppressed Black house maids in the segregated South during a time when we’re faced with an official 13% unemployment rate in the African American community.  Unofficially, it’s much higher (in some cities, it’s over 40% depending on the sub-set you examine).  For Black men, it’s worse.  When recession hit, over a quarter of the Black middle class sustained a direct nuclear hit.

Sorry. I just couldn’t see myself supporting a film about, well, The Help. It was as if the message from its release was: “We want you all back in your place, where you used to be.” Add that with red meat conservatives and politicians nostalgic for bringing old America back and it just didn’t feel right.

If anything, African Americans need movies that can inspire on a contemporary level through scenes of empowerment.  While The Help was inspirational and historical, pulling a tear or two there, it’s questionable if it was truly empowering on the scale needed.  We hoped George Lucas’ Red Tails would provide that fix, but last minute marketing and the ambitious push of an all-Black leading cast (with doubts that it will do well to a rather bigoted overseas market) may have put it in the straight-to-DVD bin early.  We could go on about what Black film-makers are busy doing (Spike Lee is trying while Tyler Perry is another conversation).  At issue is the creation of films that either show Black folks in roles that defy or deconstruct White fantasy stereotypes, or that simply motivate the Black community to aspire beyond its current, difficult state.

The problem is not so much Spencer’s win – in fact, the sister gets much love for it.  But, here we are again reflecting on what she won it for.  It’s not like Black actors, actresses and film directors are winning that many film awards … especially Oscars.  But, when they do – particularly as Best Actor – it’s primarily for roles or films that tell the story of our dark, demeaning side: Denzel Washington, one of the best, most talented American actors of the 20th and 21st century (who else could pull off an authentic London hood accent the way he did in the little known British indy For Queen and Country) didn’t get the Best nod until he played a corrupt Los Angeles cop on the take in Training Day.   While known more for her beauty than acting skills, Halle Berry didn’t get any nod until she played a sex-pot seductress in Monster’s Ball.

You get the point.  Enter Spencer getting Best Supporting Actress for playing an outspoken, blunt-talking Black maid.  It’s bound to get the conspiracy crowd buzzing – and understandably so.  Hence, the politics of the decision are going to haunt Spencer for years to come, along with the question of whether she will snag more movie roles and future nominations compared to her White counterparts.  Statistically, she won’t.  And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is 94% White and nearly 80% male, will see to that as long as it stays that way. Based on projections, she’s more likely to end up in a television role – hopefully HBO, Showtime or Starz if so – than back on the big screen.


  1. AMEN. While, I'm happy for the individual success of Octavia Spencer… as a whole Black people haven't moved beyond the days of Hattie McDaniel and her Oscar win for playing a Mammie.

  2. "We can’t avoid recognition of the obvious socio-political dimensions attached to her win."

    Yet avoiding recognition of the obvious socio-political dimensions of success is what Americans are so good at… as long as the winner is white.

  3. Well, I thought the movie was incredible. And Octavia Spencer, in particular played her character with humor, depth and mastery. She deserved the Oscar. Read politics into that if you like, but good acting is good acting, and she was better than all the other nominees in her category. At least, IMHO.

  4. I am inclined to agree with the thorough analysis and insight of Mr. Ellison. I remember those days in "The Help" when my mother and grandmother, living in the south, could not rise above the status of "The Help" while working for meager wages as Domestics.
    My first thought was what a story they could have told, and how far would it have gotten. Like Mr. Ellison, I did not think that the movie was no more than DVD caliber. I was gravely disappointed because it did not have the humor and glamour of "Gone With the Wind, and no where near the performances of McDaniels or McQueen which still stands the test of time.