Christina Baker, an assistant professor in the American Multi-cultural Studies department at Sonoma State University, found a teachable moment in this year’s Academy Award nominations.
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, as best supporting actress as the mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
And this year, Viola Davis is nominated for best actress, and Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress, both in “The Help,” in which they play maids who take care of white children.
“That’s one of the very common stereotypes of women of color, where they’re serving as maids or mammies,” Baker said.
In the intervening decades, other African American actresses have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Baker sees a pattern of stereotyping.
1973 — Cicely Tyson was nominated as best actress for “Sounder.” She played a sharecropper.
1991 — Whoopi Goldberg won best supporting actress for her role as a ghetto psychic in “Ghost.”
2002 — For “Monster’s Ball” Halle Berry won best actress. “She had a very explicit sex scene, which fits with the hyper-sexualized image for women, and women of color in particular,” Baker said.
2010 — For “Precious,” Mo’Nique won best supporting actress. “It was a role that fit into one of the stereotypes of African American women — the welfare mom. She certainly played the role well, but it wasn’t a positive image,” Baker said.
Baker intends no criticism of any of the actresses, but wishes filmmakers would offer them a wider variety of roles.
“Hollywood is just interested in mostly creating characters that people are used to seeing, because they have an idea that if anything is outside of the box, they’re sure if they’re going to make enough money. They’re not sure that anyone is going to go and see it,” Baker said.
Why does it matter? Baker believes it gives young audiences, including African American viewers, a skewed view of the world.
“If you’re not seeing people who look like you doing a variety of things in the media, that has an impact,” she said.