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The Real Housewives of The Help Go to Africa

Hollywood is so full of liberal do-gooders always on the cutting edge. As such, in advance of Black History Month, they have bestowed many acting awards upon members of the cast of The Help, namely Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who both won SAG Awards last night.

Perhaps it was because the embarrassingly entertaining Real Housewives of Atlanta happened to be arguing about how to properly acknowledge one another at the mall at the same time the SAG Awards aired, but Twitter responses to Marlo’s desire to eat some African (it’s a country, you know) food like fish (what she order?/fish filet?) were briefly interrupted by folks going on and on about the greatness of Viola Davis’ acceptance speech. My allegiances are to RHOA, so I googled the speech. Davis looked really nice (those Bassett-esque arms!). Her professional community gave her a standing ovation. She talked about dreams. Shouted out Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep.

If my feed was any indication, (Black) Twitter really loved this moment. When the most sensible member of RHOA has to be fed a line about apartheid, I can understand the adulation. Juxtaposition compels one to do odd things.

But wait.

Weren’t we just mad about this movie three months ago?

Although I tend to think I have the ability to understand contradiction, I’m having some difficulty comprehending the collective embrace of this ambiguity. Many of us criticized–or refused to read–the book. Many of us criticized–or refused to see–the movie. Yet, we laud the speech of an actor who has become a critical darling and gives a speech we deem “brilliant,” “wonderful,” and “beautiful,” precisely because she starred in the very film that we so stringently derided? Um, how does that work?

Perhaps it was the fact that I experienced all of this through social media, but the RHOA/SAG Awards moment was so incredibly odd. On one hand, I’m reading tweets about how embarrassing the former is–a humiliation so integrally tied to context. The twitterati’s chagrin was so palpable, you would have thought Nelson Mandela was within earshot of Sheree and Marlo’s argument. After all, the RHOA are up to their usual weekly shenanigans, but it’s the fact that they’re in an apartment in South Africa that makes it all the worse. And we all know you don’t play with Africa. It’s the Motherland! From whence we came! No jokes nor (n)ignorance allowed. Serious business. Singular and serious focus is required at all times. So much so that we cannot possibly begin to unpack the way in which that kind of grave reverence is based upon a fetishization that is just as problematic as Cynthia’s dashiki or Kandi’s chosen animal print dress for evening festivities. On the other hand, voices from the same cohort praised Viola Davis’ speech. An admiration that required a willing forgetfulness of the vehicle which brought her and her co-star, Octavia Spencer, to that stage last night. An admiration totally divorced from that context. Convenient, really. Inconsistent, truly.

Davis and Spencer are both incredible actors whose talent demands that they consistently star in–and be awarded for–performances that do not require the revivification of old stereotypes. And if it is our claim that Hollywood needs to do better, I’m not sure how we applaud acceptance speeches that don’t begin with, “Damn, it sucks who I had to play to get this…” Context is everything. And it is not a convenience. We cannot cringe at the thought that @BravoAndy has watched and will be commenting upon Negroes acting crazy for our entertainment with some Hollywood celebrities (or the owners of RHOA resident house slave, Sweetie, for last night’s episode) after we’ve stopped shaking our heads, then not feel similarly nauseated by the visual of a room full of (white) Hollywood standing and applauding our latest pitch-perfect portrayal of a maid–even if she is dressed to the nines.

Despite the implications of that last line, I say that with a deep respect for Viola Davis’ dream and her ability as an actor. My comments, though inspired by, are not about her. But how we applaud her acceptance speech without giving her at least a little Sam Jackson Face is something that perplexes me. (Unless, of course, it’s because we had a sneaking suspicion that someone had to tell Mo’Nique who Hattie McDaniel was, and we assumed Viola Davis knew her history all along.)

Clarity regarding the matter would be greatly appreciated.