When Sunday rolls around, you’ll likely find yourself face-down in a tray of seven layer dip, sangria pooling across the linoleum, with unattended Oscar Bingo cards being used to wipe up that mess. That’s because three hours these days is two hours too many for us to idly sit through any kind of Hollywood reach-around. But I’m not here to talk about coping mechanisms! I’m here to talk some more about the race card! It’s not a secret that the Academy Awards have a problem recognizing performers of color–but one can’t think the way they front-loaded the Supporting Actress category this year is their version of Affirmative Action: A too-late stab at course correction for a recent history of tokens in the Best Actress category. We should narrow our scope to Hollywood’s women, because it’s also no secret that the quality of roles for women generally suck more and further to nominees of the aughts because it’s the first era in our collective consciousness where we’ve become uncomfortably obsessed with political correctness (see Crash‘s unlikely upset.)
It’s not a lamentable trend that the Oscars are finally getting around to recognizing the work of actresses of color. This year, Penélope Cruz becomes something of an Oscar fixture, enjoying a nomination for her work in Nine, which compliments victories in the past: A 2008 win for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Vicky Christina Barcelona and a nomination as Best Actress for her work in Volver.
However, along with this good comes a new tide of bad: There are hints of a more unfortunate pattern emerging. Performers of color getting rewarded for pandering to stereotypical expectations. While their performances tend to blow you away, the material is often predictable.
This year’s most prominent example: While there’s no arguing Mo’Nique’s portrayal as Mary Jones in Precious was brilliantly terrifying, there’s also the fact that it’s the type of role that panders to the binary taste of the Academy: In the film, Jones is one-dimensional. She’s evil. In 2006, Jennifer Hudson won the award for essentially essaying a sassy underdog in Dreamgirls, but she was nominated alongside Adriana Barraza who played a beleaguered nanny threatened with deportation and Rinko Kikuchi who played a deaf-and-mute coquette–both in Babel. In 2003, the fantastic Shohreh Aghdashloo earned a nomination for a turn as a tragic, subservient Iranian housewife–a simplistic role she elevated to poetry.
All deserve every last accolade heaped on them. But ultimately, their performances become part of how the Academy may be creating an underclass for actresses of color: Where they are now legitimately expected to play stereotypes, with no one being held accountable for such negative progress.
A curious wrinkle this year: A Supporting Actress race this year that doesn’t include Avatar‘s Zoe Saldana. It’s a paradoxical role because while totally playing to racist stereotypes, it also calls for Saldana’s character to emerge as the film’s ultimate hero–in such a way that it almost emasculates Sam Worthington’s character in the last act of the film. More importantly, if you’re going to give Avatar the honor of a Best Picture nomination, you’ve got to recognize one of its principal players. And Saldana pulled off a miracle given such a soppy script.
But on the upside–and yes, there’s one!–there is some major progress happening across the Best Actress categories, albeit at a slow pace. As mentioned Cruz’s work for Volver earned a nomination in that category. As did Catalina Sandino Moreno’s turn as an unlikely drug mule in Maria Full of Grace. Most confounding though is Gabourey Sidibe’s nomination. Precious Jones is quite possibly one of the worst-written characters to emerge this past Oscar season. That said, Sidibe infuses such humanity, humility, and nuance into that character that it’s possible to get past the cliché and color and ruminate on the suffocating agony of the character itself.
It becomes clear then who should vault over Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan, and Hellen Mirren to collect the Best Actress prize.