On Being a Maid

The co-writer of Miracle at St. Anna says there's a cultural war in Hollywood. Guess who's winning?

DreamWorks Pictures; Warner Home Video; DreamWorks Pictures

On Jan. 24 President Obama, our first African-American president, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African-American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role -- as a maid, and a slave maid at that -- winning the Oscar in the best supporting actress category on Feb. 29, 1940.

And here we are, in 2012. Maybe I'm getting old, but the irony of this is too much. Or perhaps I've heard this song before. In the 1970s, when I was a freshman at Oberlin College, my white friends and I used to sit up and talk about racism and solving society's problems all through the night, until the sun rose. Not much good came from these talks -- the least of which was I hoped to get laid, which rarely happened.

But on those cold nights, I was convinced that when I walked out of college, racism would be just about finished. Instead, it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world. Now, 33 years later, I find myself talking about the same thing I talked about when I was a college freshman.  

I have no take with Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer. They're outstanding actresses. But the nomination of these two women by the Hollywood community 73 years after Hattie McDaniel won for the same role speaks for itself.

As co-writer and co-producer of Spike Lee's newest film, Red Hook Summer, and his previous feature film, Miracle at St. Anna, I have a clear-eyed view of what the cultural display of African-American life means to hearts in Hollywood, a land of feints and double meanings and as tricky to navigate as anything inside the Beltway. I wish someone had told me this when I was a freshman at Oberlin.

America is a superpower not because we make the biggest guns. We're a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levi's, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald's, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip-hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb could.

When you can make a person think a certain way, you don't have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide-screen 3-D TV and some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words -- elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about -- makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of blacks, the African-American experience in music, dance, art and literature.

But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers -- blacks, Asians, Latinos and other people of color -- at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. At the premiere of Red Hook Summer at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as that of any American I know, lost his cool for 30 seconds.

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When prompted by a question from Chris Rock, who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did Red Hook Summer independently was that he could not get Hollywood to green-light the follow-up to Inside Man -- which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide, plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales.