When Best Actress finally came and Meryl Streep won I felt badly that I couldn’t fully rejoice in Streep finally winning an Oscar and I felt bad that her win felt so manufactured, gift-wrapped and delivered by Harvey Weinstein. And I felt bad that the Academy didn’t take the opportunity to change the course of the Best Actress race by doing the impossible. I knew that the fallout would be the fans of Meryl Streep rejoicing, chanting “I told you so!” and that those who were rooting for Davis would feel angry and crestfallen. I knew that the subject of race would come up again, and people would want to talk less about race and more about who deserved to win. As if there is such a thing as “deserves.”
The Best Actress race is not a fair fight to begin with. There aren’t producers and Oscar dream makers lining up to make Oscar-winning roles for black women in their 40s. And though people like David Poland and Jeff Wells say things like “Viola Davis will have plenty of chances,” those of us at this long enough know that just ain’t true. Davis was the ONLY actress in a Best Picture contender. It was the highest grossing of the Best Picture contenders. Much of its success was due to Davis and Spencer. But people say, oh the part wasn’t big enough. And Marlon Brando’s in The Godfather WAS? And Nicole Kidman in The Hours was?
Nobody wants to call anyone racist, certainly not the Academy, who have tried to change the errors of their waves in the past couple of decades, once people really started talking about it. But the racism that afflicts the Best Actress race isn’t the Academy’s fault, particularly.
The key to this discussion is how impossible and improbable it would be for an actress like Davis ever to get a part like Streep got in The Iron Lady. When Meryl Streep told Hollywood to find Davis a movie, it seemed like the nicest thing to say at the time and it was well intentioned. Streep couldn’t have been more gracious to Davis throughout and probably would have been happy if Davis had won. But this was a year Streep wanted to win and everyone knew she was overdue, moreover, Streep was said to be heading into the “lifetime achievement” era of her career and some were saying her chances of winning another Oscar were going to get more and more rare. I doubt that. She will never run out of roles until she is unable to speak.
The Help was a rarity. Those kinds of roles in any mainstream Hollywood film hardly ever come along. They’re practically impossible for white actresses above 40, so you can only imagine what they are for black actresses. Viola Davis’ entire career has been making the tiny discards of the roles she’s been offered better.
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.
Still, it had to have been hard for Streep to walk up there and accept that award when so many people wanted Davis to win.
You see, the Oscars aren’t really anything important. They aren’t curing cancer or helping the poor. They are a night for back-patting and really nothing more. They can’t mean anything because the people voting on them don’t consider them carefully enough for them to mean something. They for whom and what they “like.” They are film awards as a Facebook status update.
For those who really really wanted Meryl Streep to win a third Oscar they will be happy tonight because the institution that they respect awarded the actress that they respect. But it’s a funny thing, to respect an established institution. That kind of establishment has a long history — and that history is far reaching. The reason that only stories about white people, made by white people, and starring white people, are what Hollywood makes is because that’s what the public buys. And the public buys that because those are the only narratives they have been conditioned to respond to. You see, it’s a vicious circle.
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 stuff inside that matters.