Lupita Nyong’o danced with Pharrel like the royalty she is. Her genuine joy, surprise, and awe after hearing her name announced as the winner of the Best Supporting Actress award made my heart swell. Her walk up the stairs, spreading the pleats of that incredible dress like a fan was the way to work that dress.
And it was an incredible moment in history.
It was 75 years since Hattie McDaniel, fondly or reluctantly remembered for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind, became the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She was barred from attending the movie premiere in 1939 in Atlanta, GA. McDaniel and her escort sat alone at a segregated table apart from the film’s other stars. Yes, she sat at the “coloreds only” table.
So, it didn’t escape notice during the conversation that ensued in our home that despite it being 75 years later, the role was that of a slave. Nyong’o understood the power of her role when she said, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” Her role doesn’t take away from her award or from the power and beauty of her performance (yes, I did watch the movie, and, yes, I recommend it).
Other Black female winners included Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (1990), Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball (2001), Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls (2006), Mo’Nique for Precious (2009) and Octavia Spencer for The Help (2011).
Yes, these women voluntarily took these roles. Yes, McDaniels, Spencer, and Nyong’o knew they were playing slaves. Yes, Berry and Mo’Nique knew they were playing impoverished women. That leaves a
ghost medium and a backup singer.
Seventy-five years between Mammy and Patsey, and the range of prime roles for Black women (never mind other women of color) seem rather, um, limited. What will it take, how long will it take for women of color to gain the experience, the networks, the audience to be offered the roles that so easily go to the likes all the women of non-color who dominate the awards circuit? How long before Asian and Asian American women are even up on the the big screen and littler screen in leading roles that are human beings? Please don’t name the five roles that are out there. Are there even five?
But why bother actually wasting five hours of my life when clearly I see and experience all of life as an Asian American woman and am going to notice these things anyway?
1. Because, despite a raging headache that pounded the back and sides of my brain, I am a sucker for fashion I can’t afford and would never buy even if I could afford some of it. I love the drape of a well-tailored dress or tux. I appreciate the aesthetic of fashion, and though I firmly believe the Fall of Humankind lead to all sorts of ick I am grateful we have moved beyond fig leaves, fur & leather.
2. Because the Oscars bring together the brokenness of this world together with the thing I believe God intended humankind to “do” – the creation of culture.
3. And because I also am an artist, the wife of an artist, and the mother of three artists. In my household five resides several writers, an aspiring screenplay writer/director, a dancer/choreographer, a seamstress/designer/styler, a photographer, a future master Lego builder, a satirist, and a comic book author. We are Christian home that continues to wrestle with what it looks like to be in this world but not of this world. We try to love our neighbors as ourselves by being neighbors who also watch things so we can have easy small talk and be neighbors who know what’s going on this world through a Christian lens, shaped by our Asian American immigrant experiences. We read (meaning two out of the five of us read without it being assigned) books, we get a paper newspaper and several magazines, we watch the news, etc. We shop at the mall, at the resale shops, and at all garage sales possible. We are first-world Christians desperately trying to live and be light by not hiding under a rock or bushel but by finding joy because we have the privilege and the opportunity to do so in incredibly easy but intentional ways.
So we sat together in the family room with the big screen tv and we watched, learned, and taught.
The five of us stayed up enjoying the likes of U2 (has anyone else noticed Bono can’t dance), Pink (I loved that dress!!), Idina Menzel (or Adele Menzeen, according to John Travolta, ugh), and Pharrel perform. (Pharrel, if you or your people are reading this, I have a daughter and two sons who can work it for your next multi-generational dance party.) We engaged them in critique and asked them about their observations. They noticed the plastic surgery and we talked about the world’s view and standard of beauty for men and women. We laughed when we all thought Jared Leto kind of looked like Jesus from the “Son of God” movie. We asked the kids which child would get the family to the Oscars. We cheered when the boys said they wanted to work their creative magic together. We cheered when our daughter mentioned choreographers can win Emmys. We all reacted to the Chevy commercial featuring Asian American children creating a movie by pointing at Peter, husband and dad, who made movies as a kid and still dreams about writing a screenplay. We noticed they cheered and recognized themselves and our family in a CHEVY COMMERCIAL but have never had that opportunity in an American sitcom or movie because obviously writers, casting directors, and producers don’t take race into consideration.
And in watching we continued to push ourselves and our children into the risky business of being in the world but not of the world. In many ways, it felt like an extension of Sunday worship as my heart, mind and soul continued to wrestle with the commandment to love my neighbor as myself when this world keeps telling me I am invisible.
Well written, as always. You are right… How long will it take for there to be change in the way Asians and Asian Americans are represented in the big screen? It goes even further than pop culture. Working in the community, I wonder how much longer must we fight false perceptions and discrimination to receive resources, support, and advocacy that we Asian Americans need?
I don’t own a tv so I don’t keep up with what’s on-however I read rave reviews about 12 years a slave, and now I’m curious to watch the awards speeches in the oscars too. Thanks for this post!
Nyong’o’s speech is worth watching. So is Matthew McConaughey’s because he got all weird.
It’s frustrating to be told that race, ethnicity and gender don’t matter when it seems so obvious to those of us who rarely, if ever, see ourselves represented as “normal” people, right?
If you get a chance, see 12 Years a Slave.
I grew up with this. Flipping through fashion magazines to the glossy images of Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley and Christie Turlington and never once did I see any Asian American models. All the tutorials on fabulously applying eye makeup were for deep hooded eyes. I wish it were different today. But I often find I am the only Asian American at church, the only one at Christian blogging conferences or the only one on a list of all white contributors. I honestly wondered if there just weren’t any Asian American bloggers or if I just had never met them in the circles I write in. I am so glad to read this from you. It’s all very frustrating. I want better for my daughter.
My daughter is 18, and I have subjected her to my running commentary since her days in my uterus. When she was born with creased eyelids I had to whisper to her infant ears that her worth doesn’t come from her eyelids. When her teacher wanted to play “guess whose baby picture this is” I had to practice deep breathing. And for her first two years on the high school dance team I had to restrain myself from rolling my eyes when people asked me which young woman was my daughter.
I hear you, Alia. I actually have never gone to one of those Christian blogging conferences because I just can’t bring myself to attend one. I’m not yet immersed into the blogging circuit, but what I have seen is what you have described. Kudos to you for going, representing (since, you know, when you aren’t even close to a large minority group you become the representative for the WHOLE), and perservering.
Loved the way you wrote this! I love the way you see the world. You make me see better, you know? Thank you.
Deidra, thank you! And you know you have helped me see better as well. I suspect in the months to come you will sharpen my vision like iron sharpens iron.
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Hollywood claims to be so progressive and yet, when it comes to race, Hollywood is the prime example of just how far we have to come.