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For blacks, mix of 'Help' emotions on Oscar night

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 3:25 p.m. MST

Viola Davis, right, and Julius Tennon at the Governors Ball following the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Chris Pizzello, Associated Press

Despite torrents of debate among African-Americans over the merits of the segregation-era movie "The Help," most still hoped that Viola Davis, who plays a maid, would become just the second black winner of the best actress Oscar.

And so there was widespread disappointment when Davis lost the Academy Award to Meryl Streep on Sunday night. Still, ambivalence tinged the reaction: Besides regret that the ranks of black Oscar winners remained small, many felt relief that a role viewed as stereotypical was not honored.

"Oohhhhhhhnnnnnnooooooooooooooo," wailed Robinne Lee on Twitter.

Lee, a black actress who has appeared in films such as "Seven Pounds" and "Hotel for Dogs," said in an interview that Streep embodies excellence and deserved to win. "But Viola had so much hype this year, and there was so much excitement, and it conjured up so much controversy in the black community about this role . so (the loss) was disappointing."

Yet Lee felt a mix of emotions, since she is eager to see more diverse movie casts in a wider variety of roles. Adding to the conundrum was the best supporting actress victory of Octavia Spencer, who played another maid in "The Help."

Prior to Sunday, only 13 black actors had won Hollywood's highest honor in the Oscars' 84-year history. Only Halle Berry had been chosen best actress, for playing a wounded soul who finds solace in the arms of a white man in "Monster's Ball."

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar, for a supporting role as a maid called Mammy in the Dixie-glorifying "Gone With the Wind." Since then, a high percentage of black Oscar nominees and winners have played characters such as slaves, African despots, welfare recipients, dysfunctional mothers, drug-addicted musicians or drug-dealing cops.

With Spencer's award, maid roles are responsible for two of the six Oscars won by black actresses. Streep, meanwhile, earned the third Oscar of her transcendent career for playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Which made Lee wonder: "How inspiring would it be if we could be nominated in roles where we are playing kings, queens, politicians, writers, artists, dancers . we could soar."

The debate over "The Help" made Hollywood's racial issues a recurring theme of Oscar night.

During a skit about what actors were thinking, host Billy Crystal imagined this for Davis: "I want to thank my writer and director for creating the role of a strong black woman that wasn't played by Tyler Perry." He also quipped: "When I came out of 'The Help' I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive."

Presenting an animation award, Chris Rock said the voice genre allowed fat women to play skinny or a wimp to play a gladiator. "And if you're a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can't play white, oh my God!"

Rock's observation resonated with Monika Brooks, a diversity consultant and self-described "movie dork."

"The problem is not that Davis played a maid," she said. "The problem is there's not more black people in really good roles."

Few, if any, black Hollywood executives have the power to "green-light" a film for production. Of the 5,765 people who vote on the Oscars, nearly 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male, according to a new Los Angeles Times study. The median voter age is 62.

That's why Brooks was not surprised by "The Help" being made or crestfallen when Davis didn't win: "Whoever writes the checks writes the rules."

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