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

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

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

As the Oscars approached, "The Help" was lambasted in some quarters of the black community. Many perceived it as another instance of black characters being "saved" by whites, or of serving only as vehicles to improve and enlighten white lives.

"Think of Will Smith in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance,' Michael Clarke Duncan in 'The Green Mile,' Anthony Mackie in 'The Adjustment Bureau' and Sir Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus in 'The Matrix,'" said TourÉ, the cultural commentator who uses just one name, writing in Time.

Wrote the screenwriter and author James McBride: "It's the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens."

Watching "The Help" was torture for TourÉ. But as a black man, he was disappointed that Davis lost.

"I hated the film but respect Viola's immense talent," he said in an interview. "I wanted her to get recognition for her talent and to get the power that comes with winning."

The Oakland activist and journalist Davey D said it seemed like a contradiction for critics to slam the film but support Davis and Spencer.

"Y'all should be happy the maid flick didn't win," he tweeted. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to "The Artist."

"The fear was Viola winning or 'The Help' winning would've validated keeping alive an image that many black folks found stereotypical, inaccurate and overall problematic," he said in an interview. "A win was seen as a setback."

Not for Barbara Young, who has worked for 17 years as a domestic worker and is an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Watching the film, Young cried when Davis' character was separated from a white child — she had endured several such partings in real life.

Young traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an Oscar viewing party organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. When Streep's name was called instead of Davis', the room of 50 people let out a huge groan.

"It was a very sad situation in that room," said Young, an immigrant from Barbados. "I was disappointed, but I was very grateful to the producers of the movie for bringing domestic work to the forefront."

She saw a simple reason for the criticism of the maid role: "It's not recognized as real work."

Davis certainly knows that it's real work — her mother and grandmother both toiled as maids.

During Oscar season, Davis consistently advocated for a wider range of black roles. "I've played a lot of drug addicts," she said in an interview with Terry Gross of NPR.

And she told Tavis Smiley that black people who are ambivalent about "The Help" have a mindset that is "absolutely destroying the black artist," because it forces black actors to water down their performances — to avoid character flaws that might offend oversensitive black audiences.

"The black artist cannot live in the place — in a revisionist place," Davis told Smiley. "The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy."

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.

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