The Help: an Oscar surprise or a Hollywood embarrassment?
70 years after Gone With The Wind, playing a maid still gives a black actress the best chance of an Oscar
AS THE CLOCK ticks towards Sunday's Oscar ceremony, the film with the best chance of pulling off a surprise is reigniting a Hollywood controversy – the role of blacks in the movies.
The Help, a movie about household maids in the Deep South in the days of the 1960s civil rights movement, has been established as this year's "black" contender since early in the awards season.
It has nominations for best picture, best actress for Viola Davis (above right) as Aibileen, and best supporting actress for Octavia Spencer (above left), playing her spirited subordinate, Minny.
It has already collected three SAG awards, a Golden Globe and a Bafta for Spencer, and a sweep of awards at last weekend's NAACP Image awards.
While Spencer is considered an Oscar cert, Davis is suddenly either neck-and-neck or pulling ahead of Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady for best actress. What, after all, does Thatcher mean to Americans?
As for best picture, The Artist has been too hot a favourite for too long and it is, after all, French. Pundits have taken to pointing out how cleverly the Weinstein brothers have run their Oscar campaign, making most use of the silence – no French spoken! – and the dog, who is clearly no poodle.
On the eve of the Oscars, The Help looks like a potential winner. A movie taken from a bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett which tells a quintessentially American story, and which proved a surprise hit at the box office last summer, offers the chance to both cast a feelgood vote and make a nod to popular taste.
"If there is a jaw-dropper on Oscar night, that is where it will come," Tom O'Neil of awards site TheEnvelope.com told Reuters. "Voting for Davis feels important, as if you were embracing a significant message sociologically and historically."
Hollywood would love to see the tears flowing as an all-American movie dripping with redemption from racial sin bursts onto the stage. There is even a political note: a black triumph in an election year which sees America's first black president fighting for a second term.
But there is a snag. Davis and Spencer play maids, a role which is not just the most obvious depiction of black female subservience, but one which, not too long ago, was all that a black thespian could expect in Hollywood, ever since the very first 'black' Oscar - awarded 70 years ago - went to Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.
Ida E. Jones, national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, wrote in an open statement that far from being a progressive story of triumph over injustice, the way The Help depicts black maids is a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy - a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families".
Viola Davis admits that many black women stayed away from The Help. "It's painful," she said. "You have a whole generation of women who don't want to be reminded of the past."
As Kate Muir wrote in The Times: "At least the embarrassingly white Oscar line-up will be relieved by appearances from The Help… Yet the African-American community is less than enthused by another award for a black servant's role. How much has really changed since Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar for Mammy in Gone with the Wind?"
Just last month, President Obama launched Red Tails, an action movie celebrating the role of the all-black fighter squadron the Tuskegee Airmen, with a private viewing in the White House.
But producer George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, revealed that if he had not put up $58 million of his own money Red Tails would never have been made. Because it was in essence a "black film", he could not raise the funds through the usual Hollywood studios and moneymen.
He told The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "They don't believe there's any foreign market for it and that's 60 per cent of their profit... I showed it to all of them and they said, 'No, we don't know how to market a movie like this.'"
Backstage, even Oscar winners must remember their places on the Hollywood balance sheet.