Opinion: In Desperate Need of ‘Help’–Oscars point to Hollywood’s issues with representation

Sunday, the Academy Awards demonstrated everything that’s wrong with Hollywood.

Let’s start with the Best Actress award: arguably the biggest upset in an otherwise predictable ceremony. Meryl Streep, the most nominated actress in film history, edged out favorite Viola Davis to claim the award for her performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I was disappointed but hardly surprised. Having not seen The Iron Lady, I can safely assume that Streep gave an excellent, nuanced portrayal of Ms. Thatcher, well deserving of the film industry’s top honor.

However, I have seen The Help, and Viola Davis manages to outshine a cast of some of the most talented veteran and up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood, including Allison Janney and Emma Stone. Her performance as Aibileen Clark, a maid working for a white family in early 1960s Mississippi, is more deeply felt and emotionally complex than the source material deserves. Davis owns the role, and she squeezes every ounce of warmth, strength, and emotional vulnerability she can out of the screenplay. I love Meryl, but this should have been Davis’ year.

As expected, Hugo and The Artist were the biggest winners of the evening, with each film walking home with multiple awards. The Artist, in particular, won three of the five major categories: Best Picture, Director, and Actor. With a few exceptions, Hugo all but swept the technical categories. For the most part, the winners aligned with experts’ predictions.

But the Oscars point to larger, disturbing trends in the world of modern movies. First and foremost, the Academy Awards itself suffers from an abysmal lack of representation of women and people of color. Each year, the awards are determined by an exclusive group of Oscar voters. According to the Los Angeles Times, of the 5,765 members of the Academy, 94 percent are white and 77 percent male. Further, the voting pool skews older: only 14 percent of the Academy is under age 50, according to Entertainment Weekly. So we have a group comprised of mostly older white men deciding which films set the standard for all others.

It comes as no surprise then that out of all the 2012 Oscar nominees, only 25 percent were women. Notable women nominees this year include Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, whose writing for Bridesmaids was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. But on Sunday, the award went to Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, marking his third win in this category. I have seen and enjoyed both movies. But in terms of cultural significance, Bridesmaids comes out ahead. That’s the movie that I will remember 5, even 10 years from now. It’s one of the funniest, most critically acclaimed comedies in several years. And Bridesmaids is a $170 million box office smash, which all but guarantees we will see movies in a similar vein in the near future. Midnight in Paris, on the other hand, is Woody Allen’s most entertaining screenplay in years, but it’s far from the best of 2011.

The other female-driven box-office hit of 2011 was The Help, for which actress Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her win is a perfect illustration of Hollywood’s failure to provide black actresses with a wide range of roles enjoyed by white actresses like Meryl Streep. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first African American actress to win an Academy Award for her role as a house slave named Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Over seventy years later, Spencer won for playing a domestic servant named Minnie. On what planet would that be called progress?

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