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The Globe and Mail

Oscar's fickle nature and the toll on black actors

Octavia Spencer (right) and Viola Davis in a scene from "The Help."

Dale Robinette/AP

"More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." – St. Teresa of Avila

Will it be a blessing or a curse Sunday if Viola Davis wins the Academy Award as best actress for her performance in The Help?

Davis, 45, is currently both the sentimental and oddsmakers' favourite to take the trophy, which, should it come to pass, will make her only the second African-American female to do so since Oscar's debut in May 1929.

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In fact, of the 72 Oscar winners in the four acting categories since 1992, only seven have been African-American. And it's been almost 10 years since the biracial Halle Berry made history by breaking the "colour bar" for best actress in Monster's Ball.

"This moment is so much bigger than me," a teary Berry emoted at the time, and, yes, there seemed at least the promise of a new era in the air.

Yet Oscar's history has always been fickle, cruel even, letting a performer ride high for a moment or a month, only to have him or her descend into the dustbin of the dead and the living dead. (Remember Roberto Benigni? Kim Basinger? Helen Hunt?)

It's a history that's been particularly hard on African-American performers, especially women. For a Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet or Charlize Theron, an Oscar win (or wins) has served simultaneously as approbation, benchmark and springboard.

For African-Americans, too often it's been both career peak and dead end. And this in a country where blacks make up 15.4 per cent of the population but only 2 per cent of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where women purchase 55 per cent of movie admissions but account for only 23 per cent of Academy members.

Halle Berry, of course, stands as Exhibit One for this phenomenon, having conspicuously failed to parlay her 2002 win into a sustained and varied high-level career. But she's hardly alone. Today Jennifer Hudson is better known for her bravura homage to Whitney Houston at the Grammy Awards and her testimonials on behalf of WeightWatchers than her triumph as best-supporting actress in Dreamgirls (2006) . Ditto Mo'nique, who won the same honour three years later for Precious and has been largely invisible on-screen since.

Meanwhile, among recent Oscar-winning African-American males, who besides Morgan Freeman (best-supporting actor, Million Dollar Baby) and Denzel Washington (best actor, Training Day) has enjoyed any consistent and multifaceted screen-time post-Oscar, or enough clout to green-light a project? Certainly not Cuba Gooding Jr. (named best supporting actor for Jerry Maguire, 1996 ), Jamie Foxx (best actor, in 2004's Ray) or Forest Whitaker (best actor, The Last King of Scotland, 2006).

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"The problem," as Edward C. Mapp sees it, "is that there isn't a range or diversity of opportunities coming. You can't be nominated unless you get the work."

A retired communications professor at City University of New York and author of African Americans and the Oscar: Decades of Struggle and Achievement (2008) , he acknowledges the lack of quality opportunities "has been a problem even among white performers. But it increases many times for the African-American … Everything's always multiplied when it's African-Americans."

As Davis herself remarked recently: "Say if you have two great roles for an African-American actress in a year – one actress can cover it. So if there's five really good black actresses out there, and that one actress gets it all, the others can sit for the next three years."

Even when an African-American does land a plum role with a good script, it's usually black-specific, with the character living in hardened, sometimes unsavoury, often impoverished circumstances. Occasionally, this character will be that awards' show staple, "the magical Negro" – defined by Toronto International Film Festival co-director Cameron Bailey as "the noble, charming helper to the self-actualization of a white protagonist."

Mapp would like to see casting become colour neutral. Take the part of Karen Crowder, the murderous workaholic general counsel in 2007's Michael Clayton. Tilda Swinton got the nod, performed brilliantly and went on to win the Oscar for best-supporting actress. However, Mapp contends Angela Bassett, who scored a best-actress nomination playing Tina Turner in 1994's What's Love Got to Do with It, "could have done that just as well."

In the meantime, race continues to be a charged factor. Sure, an African-American could have been one of the stars of Bridesmaids – but, as Bailey observes, "a black woman's presence in an otherwise white film is seen as freighted with too much meaning, too much semiotic risk."

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For some, the nominations of Davis and Octavia Spencer for The Help is much of the same old same old. After all, the movie's about racial inequality, set in the Deep South in the 1960s, and both Davis and Spencer, who's nominated as best-supporting actress, play domestics, just as Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American ever to win an Oscar, did more than 70 years ago in Gone with the Wind.

Mapp, however, says he's "not really bothered with [Davis]playing a domestic because it's a domestic with dignity, which we've rarely seen. I go back to remembering all the black actresses who were maids to the likes of Mae West when she'd say [in 1933's I'm No Angel] 'Beulah, peel me a grape,' when they were put in there just as props. Viola Davis is not like that at all."

Casting Davis as the upright Aibileen only affirms her versatility as a performer, Mapp says – a versatility demonstrated previously with her 2008 Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt (playing an abusive mother) and two Tony Awards, in 2001 and 2010, for performances on Broadway, among other successes.

"It's a step in the right direction; it's what we need more of."

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