(Viola Davis doing it natural in ‘02 in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris)
Before the present comes the past. So let’s take it back. I am four or five, sitting on the toilet seat cover as I watch my mother comb her short and neat natural in the medicine cabinet mirror. There is the smell of TCB and oil sheen, and the aroma of whichever perfume she had on that day.
My father enters and steps into the frame created by the mirror they now share. They have the same kind of comb. They pat their fro’s at the same time, on opposite sides. My parents had marched and taken part in protests and other Black power and civil rights movement activities. They were not leaders but they had learned to be proud of who they were, of their hair, of what they knew about their culture.
They had taken a stand for being able to have a life their way, to no longer be slaves to the American system. A Death Star had fallen because of it. Now it was time for their 40 Acres and a Mule.
Sitting there, in that bathroom, watching a young couple smile and coo over one another first thing in the morning, I knew that I too, some day, would appear in that mirrored frame as well. I also assumed that the same scene was repeating itself all over our newly-discovered Black America. Now, onto Viola Davis.
Last night The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science did us it’s now expected favor of opening up a few slots for African American nominees. They do their job well, granting an average annual to bi-annual win that goes down in the hood like sweet potato pie after Christmas dinner. It’s been the greatest political move since they let the twin towers drop, because so many of us have come to believe in the hype that Flavor Flav warned us of long ago.
This year Viola Davis (whom I have followed since her work with Steven Soderburgh in a number of films) and her break-out performance (double with Octavia Spencer doing the same deal) playing yet another maid in the South who shows the white folks that “negroes is humans too” were on deck. In the African American tradition, both Davis and Spencer took the roles they were cast in and made a dollar out of the undoubted 15 cents scripted on the page. And when Ms. Davis walked that red carpet with her husband, swaddled in Vera Wang, it had been decided that there was apparently room in the Oscar inn for an underrated sista who had shown them all how it was done, one more time.
The trending topics on Twitter and Facebook were all about Viola, her dress, her natural hair and how we wanted her to win more than anything. But the truth was that I didn’t want her to win an Oscar last night, at least not for her work in ‘The Help’. And I was not alone.
This country has more of a love of star and celebrity than it does of the actual cinema. We want to laugh. We want to cry. But most importantly we want to see ourselves up there. It was a win for Hattie McDaniel when she scored a statue for Gone with the Wind. But when the toast of Tinseltown continues to be these “negroes are human too” flicks (The Blind Side was just three years ago).
I have seen Viola Davis portray an astronaut, and a mother trapped between ensuring her son more privilege than she, and knowing that a priest is molesting her son. I have seen as social worker, wife and sister to gangsters, and a countless list of other turns far more engaging and memorable than some ‘Green Mile’ maid. In my opinion, if she had won last night she would have found herself up to her eyeballs in the whirlpool of politics and sorcery known as the Hollywood casting ame, a pool that all but incapacitated nearly every Black Oscar recipient of the last 40 years, save for Denzel.
When you look at the winners of the last 20 years alone: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, and Mo’Nique to name a few, one notices that the parts they’ve played after their wins were rarely as strong, focused or memorable to the mainstream and the Academy that crowned them. As a writer I started watching the Oscars in hopes of trying to figure out a formula for earning one. I’ve learned what makes the Academy tick and the roll through the muck they’re good for putting artists through in the name of the Academy’s own politics.
I’ve had to respect that fact that Hollywood was built primarily by Jewish Americans. And they’ve kept it that way for the better part of the last century. They started out doing their own kind of sharecropping on their own kinds of plantations. But they wouldn’t sell any of for a seat next to Moses on an Amtrak train. Mastering their game is about learning those rules and understand the country we’ve been in now for close to half a millennia. We need folks on the other side of the game that can take the talent we have and move into new brackets where our points of celebration are no longer limited to an actress choosing to wear her hair naturally when she’s nominated for an Oscar. That’s so 20th century to me.
Following some of the trends and commentary for the evening, I witness several people of color who I all but worshiped in my youth choosing to the support Viola’s expected win over the politics of the film she would have won for, a throwback to a pre-Obama world where the only thing we were good for was was the work the white world didn’t want to do. It’s almost like we’re saying “We don’t care what she does onscreen, as long as she’s good at it.”
In my mind Viola Davis won last night. Because in not winning she won’t be trapped in some “Show Me The Money” moment for the rest of her career. She won last night because radiated more style and grace than the women who’ve been doing it for decades. But the movie business is deeper than the faces and performances. For me it’s about the motives that drive the machine on the underneath.
I guess what I want is for Black people to want more. The same Baby Boomer struggle that brought about the Civil and Voting Rights acts and the movement that changed the game for us went right back to the perm and jheri curl 15 years later. We wanted to be in their world instead of our own, even if we ended up diminished as a result. The perms and weaves and wigs that have become standard for us both on and off-screen. After all of this time and all that we’ve accomplished we’re still celebrating being able to be ourselves while the rest of the world has moved onto building it’s houses free of the colonizing forces that once enslaved them. We get happy over tears and speeches from performers who have more real power today than they did before the curtain went up last night.
And I’m over it. I’m starting to believe that most of the “community” of which I’m supposed to be a part, is still trapped in my parents’ bathroom after more than 30 years in the wilderness. We’re holding onto image when the real facts and our real sense of taste, is far more important. I can’t live there anymore. Even if my walk to the my promised land is a journey I make alone, I’m ok with it. It’s one thing listening to your people talk through the whole movie. It’s another thing when they refuse to see the big picture.