You may have noted my gushing over actress Lupita Nyong’o’s recent (and now viral and widely praised) speech on black beauty over on the Invisible Bride blog toward the end of last week, and I wished her well in the impending 2014 Oscars race. Well – somewhat unsurprisingly – she won the Academy Award for Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013, McQueen). I have to tell you, while there is a small victory here, this particular win has left a bad taste in my mouth.
Nyong’o is now in the company of Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer, fellow black actresses who each one the Supporting Actress award at the Oscars in 1939, 1990, 2006, 2009 and 2011 respectively. Each of these actresses have only ever been out-done once by the award of Best Actress when Halle Berry won in 2001 for her role in Monster’s Ball – the first and only black actress to do so to this day. When one reviews the kind of roles that gained each of actress the aforementioned awards, we should seriously wonder what is being celebrated here.
Take for instance, Nyong’o’s role as Patsey the slave, or Hudson’s drunk, lazy wannabe pop star, Mo’Nique’s abusive single-mother, in addition to Goldberg’s mammy-esque phony psychic. While it may have been acceptable in the 1930s to only conceive of a black woman as a slave (and a happy one at that), but one might hope that by the 1990s we would be able to celebrate black women in a variety of roles. The fact that each role played by a black actress has illustrated either a racist caricature, a mode of servitude, or both clearly demonstrates that while the US establishment might be “ready” for a black president (two times over), it is still not ready for strong black women, in prominent, dynamic positions, unless they fulfill a white patriarchal fantasy.
While this should be an opportunity to celebrate that a film so candidly handling the USA’s dirty-little-secret could win the prestigious award of Best Picture, another issue I (and other observers) have had with all the hype surrounding 12 Years is that Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt (who produced and featured in the film as the essential, Hollywood “white good guy”) have taken on a specifically self-congratulatory stance. Pitt has on one hand gone so far as to state that “It took a Brit” to make a film about US slavery and McQueen expressed his bemusement over the apparent lack of films that seriously and consciously depict slave narratives. It needs to be repeatedly pointed out that this is not the first adaption of Solomon Northup’s memoirs about his days in captivity, and that if McQueen was so desperate to bring slave narratives to the big screen, as a Brit he could have had his pick of Afro-Caribbean discourses. However, instead he has followed in the footsteps of the normative European rhetoric, which refuses to acknowledge that aspect of imperialism or industrialisation as part of our history, while fixating on the horrors of US slavery as a convenient distraction. Having said this, one should also examine the films currently available that do deal with Britain’s involvement in slavery, such as Amazing Grace (2006), which is admittedly more concerned with white heroism than slave narratives, or Amistad (1997), which navigates the complexities of the slave-trade.
In addition to ignoring the previous adaption of 12 Years, both Pitt and McQueen overlook other cinematic feats that have tackled slavery such as Beloved (1998 – based on the novel by the same name by Toni Morrison in 1987, which itself it based on a true story of a runaway slave) and of course the mini series Roots (1977 – based on the novel by Alex Haley in 1976). Furthermore, some of the best US literature of the 20th century have been adapted into feature length films, while featuring an almost entirely black cast, such as The Color Purple (1985) and Their Eyes were Watching God (2005). Both of these films depict black, middle class, southern life, after slavery and before the civil rights movement (arguably the most brutal era for African-Americans), and most interestingly the stories (like Beloved) are about strong black women.
Because let’s face it, we need to expose our little girls to a wider range of female role models to look up to and while I doubt many parents would choose to sit any child under the age of 12 in front of 12 Years, even the Disney images we have of women of colour leaves much to be desired. Tiana in the Princess and the Frog (2009) should have been a real triumph in cinema, however it presented a questionable and unnecessarily sugar-coated version of race-relations in Louisianna during the 1920s. More troubling still is how similar the rhetoric surrounding 12 Years and Princess and the Frog was; the latter film was heavily promoted as the first African-American Disney princess, conveniently forgetting about the Whitney Houston produced Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella (1997) starring Brandy Norwood. While Princess and the Frog was the first animated African-American Disney princess, there is something more powerful about taking a character who has historically and universally been considered to be white and re-writing her as black. And not the wimpering, singing to birds version of Cindie that we’re used to either; Norwood’s Cinderella was self-assured and quietly confident, looking for ways out of her hellish home life that extend beyond becoming a princess. Of course Tiana shares many of these characteristics, but one cannot get around the white washing of her settings in order to make parents feel better.
Other more grown up and inspiring portrayals of women of colour (based on true stories) have recently been adapted into films, such as Princess Kaiulani (2009) and Belle (2013), however neither of these films have received the Hollywood treatment showered onto 12 Years perhaps because we are more comfortable viewing US slavery and moreover, perhaps because we are more accustomed to seeing women of colour as colonised bodies. McQueen could have departed from this trend with an adaption of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song – again about a slave but a strong, female narrative carries across a story of love, captivity and also liberation. Or the real life story of the African orphan Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was given as a gift to Queen Victoria I, who became the godmother of Sarah’s eldest daughter – also called Victoria. I suppose he knew that by brutalising the black female body on screen, he’d be more likely to win an award. It’s not that I’m not happy for Lupita, or that I feel she didn’t deserve to win an Oscar for her performance. She appears to be a great talent of her generation so I hope she enjoys her moment as well as a long and successful career. I just hope that the career ahead of her will be celebrated even if she doesn’t play a slave.