Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Birthday Take: Octavia Spencer in "The Help" (2011)

Octavia Spencer
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Octavia Spencer
Born: May 25, 1970 (46 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress - The Help (won) as Minny Jackson

The Take

If there is one thing that seems pretty peculiar about the cast of The Help, it's how many of the stars have since navigated towards TV. While Emma Stone still remains prominent in film culture, one can look at Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and notice that they are more likely to be recognized for TV work. Davis went to How to Get Away with Murder - where she famously became the first black actress to win a leading Emmy. It makes sense why she would go to TV, especially in an era where there's a hotly debated issue regarding which medium has the better output. It becomes even more difficult when you consider that shows like Game of Thrones manage to churn weeks worth of conversation whereas any given new movie release is mostly discussed if it's either a superhero or an outright bomb. There's sadly almost no in between outside of awards season.
Spencer has been more vocal on the matter. While she definitely was grateful to have won an Oscar for The Help - giving one of the more passionate speeches at the 2012 ceremony - her next approach wasn't to tackle another prestige picture. After a few gigs in smaller indie films (including the very enjoyable Smashed and Fruitvale Station), she next gained notice for her brief time in the short lived Red Band Society: a drama centered around a group of sick kids at a hospital. She played the wise old nurse who kept them in check and could easily be seen more as a cameo than often central to the plot. However, it was the start of her time mixing with TV. She would also take a supporting role on Mom. She has continued to appear in films, such as the Divergent series, but there's a sense that she wants to do more TV.
To backtrack for a moment, Spencer's general comments when signing up for Red Band Society was that TV was where the opportunities were. While it is not a well kept secret that racial diversity is an issue in most industries, there's a certain understanding when addressing black representation on TV. After all Shonda Rhimes has cornered the market with several original shows on ABC that feature prominently diverse casts. However, Spencer hasn't had as much luck with capturing that magic. Outside of a few cameo roles, she hasn't made a voice for herself in TV quite like Davis has. This isn't a bad thing, nor has Spencer's career necessarily been on a downward spiral. Still, in the realm of TV vs. Film, it does seem like Spencer's better off in film. If nothing else, her resume looks far more impressive when you look at her recent film credits (including the fun Zootopia).
Of course, The Help's advertising didn't necessarily get any benefits from marketing. For anyone who saw trailers, they will likely know how much of the film was geared to make Stone look like the central focus. True, she was key. However, the complicated lives of the black servants played by Spencer and Davis definitely would steal the show. Many cannot remember too much of what Stone does, but everyone likely remembers the home cooking of the Oscar nominees. It's a shocking moment, and one that plays into knocking ignorant white people down a peg. It was a crowd pleasing movie, and one that defied the odds of an August release getting Oscars. It may not have done much that's necessarily outside of the box, but it definitely made for a feel good movie that added diversity to the already rich 2011 season.
Even if The Help doesn't have much of a legacy at this point, one can easily look to its stars and think of the personal debates that Spencer has brought up. Is there more opportunities in TV or Film? Both have their merits, but which would be the preferential resource? It isn't entirely clear, and Spencer's foray into TV hasn't necessarily made a good case for it. However, it's still interesting to see diversity discussed no matter where it's found. As long as Spencer continues turning in delightful roles, who cares. Entertainment is meant to be entertaining, and that's mostly what each of these fields should be judged upon.

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