Blackface, Penis Jokes, and ‘The Help’—Was the Oscars the Most Insensitive Award Show Ever?
The Academy Awards—determined by a predominantly pale (94 percent white), male (77 percent), and stale group of Oscar voters—might not be your award ceremony of choice if you’re young and progressive—especially if you don’t want to endure copious amounts of race-trivializing moments, hear tired penis jokes from your favorite comediennes, or watch revisionist-history feel-good films like ‘The Help’ get awarded (or not) in any form.
For those who didn’t (or did) watch Sunday’s 84th Academy Awards show, we offer a roundup of race-fails, and other –ism infused insensitivities sure to make your head spin:
In the first few minutes, the Oscars surprised viewers with a cameo appearance from Justin Bieber, who joked he was there to help bring in the “18 to 24 demographic.” Unfortunately, the Oscars’ tact turned distasteful when host Billy Crystal slapped on blackface to do his Sammy Davis Jr. impression just seconds after the Bieb’s initial appearance in the opening sketch.
Billy Crystal continued his out-of-touch rant by joking about The Help. He said, that after seeing the film he “wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.”
A seemingly self-aware Daniel Junge said he ought to “let the Pakistani on stage speak,” in reference to his collaborator, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a documentarian, journalist, and Pakistani woman. But after accepting the Academy Award for the Feature Documentary, Saving Face he just kept talking … and thenlet her speak later.
Certain not to leave anyone out, Billy Crystal than belittled women in film. When he introduced the Bridesmaids stars, Crystal said: "This has been a great year for strong, feminine characters. Some wore high heels and ran countries like The Iron Lady, and J. Edgar."
As expected, the Bridemaids stars were hilarious—the Scorsese drinking game bit was a riot—but then, the humor slipped into some familiar penis-critiquing territory. The flaccid jokes harped on the same “size matters” gimmick you’ve heard time and time again, making it difficult to grasp how some of Hollywood’s brightest comediennes could be responsible for the penis joke faux pas.
Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress (our sister publication) noted another racially awkward moment in an otherwise hilarious sketch, which featured an agitated focus group of moviegoers analyzing The Wizard of Oz. In the sketch, an attendee played by Fred Willard kept talking about how he’d love a movie with more monkeys in it. One film Willard’s character suggested that would benefit from adding a cast of apes was Gone With the Wind—the same film that features the first African-American actress Hattie McDaniel to ever win an Academy Award. The quip may not have been intentionally racist, but considering America’s long history of comparing ape-related images to African Americans, Willard and the Academy should have known better. Ironically, McDaniel won for playing a devoted maid in the Civil War-era, a role many agree contributed to the racist mammy stereotype—a role revisited by the critically acclaimed and reviled film, The Help.
Octavia Spencerwon the Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Minny Jackson in The Help, but leading co-star Viola Davis—who many predicted would clinch the Academy Award as she won the Golden Globe and the SAG—shockingly lost the Best Actress nod to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. The upset surprised, even to those who ripped The Help (see Twitter hashtag #racetheoscars for conflicted rants) for its propensity to grope for racial mammy tropes without detailing the real dangers of sexualized violence and Jim Crow discrimination. (For more dissection of The Help checkout Melissa Harris-Perry’s segment on her new solo spot on MSNBC.)
The New York Times reported that Billy Crystal’s humor may have had something to do with the slight rise in ratings the show enjoyed compared to last year. But overall, the awards show failed to nab the coveted young eyeballs that advertisers value most, demonstrating that it might take more than a Justin Bieber cameo to get young Americans watching again.
Perhaps when the award show catches up with the times—by surgically removing racialized remarks, cutting insensitive slips of the tongue, and diversifying the membership of the Academy—it has a shot at obtaining the viewership it so badly wants.
Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.