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Viewing the Oscars through a racial lens

February 27, 2012 |  1:27 pm

Viola Davis-Octavia Spencer
Between the months-long investigation by The Times that revealed that 94% of the members who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are white, and the heated debate about "The Help" putting the "mammy" stereotype back in the spotlight and celebrating the "white savior," it would have been impossible not to watch Sunday's Academy Awards through a racial lens. Here are a few such observations.

"So glad they got rid of the producer who used a homophobic slur so we could get Billy Crystal doing racial jokes and blackface."

With open arms, the Oscars welcomed diversity back to its ceremony, but the embrace turned out to be more awkward than warm. […]

Even before host Billy Crystal took the stage, Morgan Freeman spoke about the glory of films. James Earl Jones received one of the first salutes from Crystal. Pharrell Williams, one of the show's music producers, played the drums alongside percussionist Sheila E. And Octavia Spencer received the evening's first standing ovation when she won the supporting actress Oscar for her role as a downtrodden maid in"The Help." […]

Tweeted one viewer named Lisa: "So glad they got rid of the producer who used a homophoic slur so we could get Billy Crystal doing racial jokes and blackface."

--Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times

"Never listen to anyone try to tell you it isn't about race."

Oh, it's fine to give out plenty of supporting nods to black actresses, but lead? Lead is a whole different thing, isn't it. It's a prom queen thing. It's a Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet thing. It's actresses who get their chances at bat throughout their careers, with plenty of lead roles offered to them and varying degrees of portraits. But Viola Davis? It just doesn't happen. […]

Change will come but it will take more upstarts like Davis. But never listen to anyone try to tell you it isn't about race. It was about race the minute each actress in those films signed their contracts. It was about race because one has had an entire career to stretch and grow and play an array of leading ladies, and one has always had to play whatever tiny character parts the American public could accept a black woman in. Viola Davis was still a winner tonight. She doesn't have an Oscar but she has the right stuff inside that matters."

--Sasha Stone, Awards Daily

"The persistence of segregation"

The off notes began when Billy Crystal resurrected his Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonation for a "Midnight in Paris" sketch at the beginning of the show. The bit is just fine, but on a night that featured Octavia Spencer and Davis as acting nominees for "The Help," and Gabourey Sidibe reflecting on how few women like herself she sees on-screen, it was an unfortunate reminder of how few parts are available for actual African-American actors. It didn't help when, later in the telecast, Crystal joked that after seeing "The Help,""I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive." It might have been a crack on white, wealthy Los Angeles residents, but the joke didn't have quite enough self-awareness about the persistence of segregation. […]

As Chris Rock reminded us, "If you're a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra."

--Alyssa Rosenberg, ThinkProgress

"Davis made Sunday night at the Oscars a teachable moment"

Whether she knows it or not (she does), Viola Davis made Sunday night at the Oscars a teachable moment, giving the world a crash course in the ever-complicated politics of African-American hair.

Davis, a Best Actress nominee for "The Help," arrived at the awards ceremony in a stunning emerald-colored gown and a natural, curly Afro, instantly lifting the lid from the bubbling pot of anger, judgment, and debate often directed toward African-American women and the varying states of their textured tresses. […]

"She's using her hair to say, 'Don't be confused. I am not who I play on TV or movies,' " says race and cultural writer Rebecca Walker. " 'I have left the plantation and wait for no one to tell my story.' "

--Allison Samuels, the Daily Beast


An Oscar for diversity

Photos: Oscar's best and worst

Academy Awards: It's about art, not political correctness

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Octavia Spencer, right, is congratulated by "The Help" castmate Viola Davis on the way to the stage to accept the supporting actress Oscar. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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