Actress Octavia Spencer walked away with the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 84th annual Academy Awards Show Sunday. Spencer’s character Minny Jackson in “The Help” aptly displayed her comedic as well as dramatic abilities and demonstrated how grounded an actress she is. Her grace and beauty warmed the audience and her sincere words touched the hearts of many. Spencer is the fifth Black actress to win in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Hattie McDaniel started it all; she was the first Black to win an Oscar. She won for her best supporting role of Mammy in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” The next win would not happen until 1991, when Whoopi Goldberg won the supporting Oscar for her role as Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost.”
In 2006, Jennifer Hudson took home the Oscar for her supporting role as Effie White in “Dreamgirls” and in 2009 Mo’Nique won for her supporting role as Mary Lee Johnston in “Precious.”
Spencer is a native of Montgomery, Ala., the sixth of seven brothers and sisters. Born May 5, 1972, Spencer always knew she wanted to work in pictures, but never really dreamed it would be in front of the camera. Her first break came in 1995, when she got a small role opposite Sandra Bullock in the hit film “A Time to Kill.” She hasn’t looked back since.
Her Oscar win may have come as a surprise to some, but if you followed her career, you’d know she was destined for greatness. Spencer is just one of those talents who pops up in films where you least expect them. From a disturbed woman in the “Soloist” (2009) to Pet Psychic Madame Nora in “Dinner for Schmucks” (2010). That wasn’t a big role, but she was very good, with perfect comedic timing in what was a truly wacky movie.
She even played a bank teller in the 2009 very scary flick “Drag Me to Hell.” And the same success she found in film is also evident in her television work, too.
Spencer has now been thrust into the limelight, and those days when she could walk into a room and only folks like me would acknowledge her are gone. She’s on the Hollywood A-List now.
Although Viola Davis didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actress as Aibileen Clark in “The Help”–that went to Meryl Streep for the movie “The Iron Lady” about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher–Davis nevertheless caused a stir on the red carpet. She wore her hair in a ‘natural’ a very red ‘fro that complimented her skin coloring. In her Vera Wang gown, she was simply striking.
Davis said she took advice from her husband, Julius Tennon, to just wear her hair naturally, let her true beauty shine through. Davis told reporters, “It gives me flavor. It makes me feel like I’m spicing up my life a bit.”
Octavia and Viola had their own special cheering squad–the National Domestic Workers Alliance. According to Jesse Washington in an Associated Press article, the organization had a special viewing party in Los Angeles. He spoke with Barbara Young, an alliance national organizer from New York who has worked as a domestic for 17 years and says when Streep’s name was called instead of Davis’, the room of 50 people let out a huge groan. “It was a very sad situation in that room,” said Young, an immigrant from Barbados. “I was disappointed, but I was very grateful to the producers of the movie for bringing domestic work to the forefront.”
When asked about all the flak that the movie and the characters received, especially from the Black community, Young saw a simple reason for the criticism of the maid role: “It’s not recognized as real work.”
As many of us know, domestic work is ‘real’ work. And thanks to the fine performances of the actresses involved in “The Help,” we may just learn through other stories how some of these women made fortunes that stemmed from what they learned and observed by being “The Help.”
Gail can be reached at email@example.com.