(The Root) — It's not every day that an Oscar-winning actress stops by the neighborhood beauty salon and barbershop to compliment your roller set. But on Saturday's national day of grassroots action for the Obama campaign, Octavia Spencer of The Help brought Hollywood celebrity to North Carolina to boost the president's re-election chances, vote by vote.
As the Democratic Party prepares for its fast-approaching September convention in Charlotte, N.C., and polls show a close race between the president and presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney, that's not surprising. Strong African-American support made the difference in President Obama's 2008 win in North Carolina by only 14,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast; a 2012 repeat means that he must energize his base. African-American turnout could determine if the president again puts the swing state's 15 electoral votes in his column, according to a recent National Urban League study.
Weekend events in Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area, where actor Don Cheadle appeared at Obama for America events at local businesses, were part of the It Takes One initiative, asking for individuals to reach out to friends and neighbors and do one thing to support the campaign. In a recent phone interview with columnists, first lady Michelle Obama said, "This election is going to be even closer than the last one, and in the end this could all come down to those few thousand votes."
More than 300 of the weekend's 4,600 nationwide events took place in North Carolina, according to the campaign.
Spencer, wearing a 2012 T-shirt under a dark blazer and a pin with the president's image on it, chatted, joked and took pictures with the 30 or so patrons and visitors at Heads Up Barber Shop in Charlotte. When someone said, "I loved you in that movie. Where's the pie?" referring to the infamous confection that caused so much drama in The Help, Spencer answered, "You don't want me to cook." But her election message was serious.
The Montgomery, Ala., native compared the neighborhood scene to the places African Americans gathered when they first won the right to vote. "We cannot forget to show up in November — otherwise, it's going to be back to where it was in 1980, and [economic policies were based on the] trickle-down effect," she said as the men, women and children in the shop listened. "That's what Mitt Romney proposes, that the rich continue to flourish and we wait for it to trickle down to us. Now, I don't know about you, but I haven't felt that trickle yet."
The Tea Party movement came in for some jabs, too. "I am a Southerner, and I loved tea at one point," Spencer said. "Now it has a very different flavor." Spencer asked for raised hands from those who promised to volunteer, "because we know you're going to show up," she said. "It's about involving the community as well."
Cummings, 57, a retired medical secretary, supports the Affordable Care Act "100 percent," she said. "Everybody needs insurance; you've got too many children and old people suffering." Women's issues and a woman's right to choose are also important to her. While Cummings said that she is personally against abortion, she said she believes it should be a personal decision, particularly in cases of rape and incest. She thinks that though the race will be tight, Obama will win. "He's a child of God."
Her son, Letheria Truesdale, a stylist at the shop, said that he is a big fan of Michelle Obama, her fitness campaign and family life, and "how she backs up her husband." Like his mother, Truesdale, 30, supports the president. "I don't want to go backwards," he said.
Patrons at Heads Up talk politics every day, said owner Reggie Kennedy, 40. He is happy to be a part of the Obama campaign's Barber Shop/Beauty Salon Program, with posters and placards and a voter-registration drop box in a corner. "I'm worried," he said of the election. "It's getting kind of close." The health care fight and sluggish economy are working against the president, and "Obama is not getting a fair shake," he said. The country "is still trying to recuperate from when George Bush was in office. People don't talk about Bush anymore."
Kennedy was giving a trim to Caleb Green, called "our next Barack" by Spencer when she stopped for a photo with the slightly fidgety 4-year-old. His mother, Sabrina Green of Charlotte, said she would like to see more community campaigning. "A lot of people my age don't take it seriously," the 30-year-old fast-food restaurant manager said.
In a conversation as she was about to leave to meet with volunteers and make some phone calls, Spencer told The Root why she traveled from Los Angeles for a day of campaigning in North Carolina. "We can either vote for a progressive incumbent, or the alternative is to regress with the Tea Party," a group she said "is trying to rewrite history." She reflected on changes since the repression during the time in which her most famous film was set. "To me, voting is more of a duty than a right. That's why I'm here."
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog, The Root, Fox News Charlotte and Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.