Young, Black and Nominated: Enough?

With few roles for people of color, a long post-Oscar career isn't guaranteed for Quvenzhané Wallis.

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(The Root) -- A dream came true for Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis recently when she met actress China McClain on the set of McClain's show, A.N.T. Farm on the Disney Channel. Upon learning of her Oscar nomination, the 9-year-old Wallis reportedly expressed more excitement about the chance to meet her favorite teen TV stars than she did about hearing she will walk the red carpet on Sunday with Hollywood's elite.

It is fitting that Wallis would make a stop at Disney headquarters in what looks like a fairy tale year. Turning in a powerful performance in the critically acclaimed independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis became the 10th black actress ever to be nominated by the academy for a leading role, receiving recognition that continues to be elusive for African-American performers.

But celebrating Wallis' nomination as a historic black achievement is not as simple as it has been for Gabby Douglas' gold medal wins at the Olympics last summer in London. Or for Halle Berry's watershed, first-time win for a black actress in a leading role for Monster's Ball in 2002.

Wallis is not only the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (Tatum O'Neal was 10 when she won the best supporting actress award in 1974 for her work in Paper Moon), she is also an amateur with no previous acting experience. This combination of factors has raised questions about whether Wallis deserves her Oscar nomination. Where is the acting in Wallis' performance?

We might wonder if Wallis can have a career in Hollywood post-Beasts. As she gets older, will she lose the innocent and raw qualities that make her performance as Hushpuppy so powerful and distinctive? Will her performance in the upcoming Steve McQueen film Twelve Years a Slave, in the company of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt, be a litmus test of her Oscar-worthiness? Answers to these questions are important, because the selection of Wallis over more experienced actresses for one of the five most coveted spots in the entertainment industry evokes longstanding beliefs about black authenticity and persistent anxieties about African-American competence and achievement.

From ongoing debates about affirmative action, such as the Fisher v. University of Texas case currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, to the rapid rise of Barack Obama from the Illinois Legislature to the U.S. presidency, black advancements in predominantly white fields continue to be tinged with skepticism and jealousy.

As a result, those who would defend Wallis' portrayal of Hushpuppy as one of the year's best film performances risk charges of knee-jerk political correctness that pushes for diversity over merit. On the other hand, those who might question the appropriateness of the academy's nod to Wallis risk the charge of mean-spiritedness, if not racism.

 Wallis' long list of award nominations from critics' societies and festivals, the NAACP and the academy begs questions about how film acting is evaluated as a craft. What difference does it make that Wallis was cast for type rather than for acting experience? If Wallis turned in a performance that grew out of her "natural" sense of fearlessness and ethics, does this diminish the impact of her presence on screen or her contribution to Beasts of the Southern Wild as a work of art?

The makers of Beasts defend her talents. But the story the filmmakers consistently tell about choosing Wallis from more than 3,500 children they auditioned for the role contributes to the sense that she already embodied Hushpuppy before the cameras started rolling.

A similar story was told about the casting of Keisha Castle-Hughes, whose record as the youngest actress nominated for an Oscar for a leading role (age 13) was broken by Wallis this year. For the 2003 film Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes was reportedly selected from a pool of 10,000 New Zealand children to play Pai, a Maori girl who fights to become the first female leader of her tribe. The parallels between Wallis/Hushpuppy and Castle-Hughes/Pai are striking. Feisty spirits on and off camera, these girls of color are praised for the refreshing authenticity they bring to their roles (Castle-Hughes was the second Polynesian ever nominated for an Academy Award).

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