Slaves, nannies, and maids: Oscars value women of colour – in subservient roles | Film | The Guardian


For voters, what makes a has disturbingly narrow criteria for non-white performers. The observation that of colour are only ever recognised for playing slaves and , that their are only ever seen as when they deal with and suffering, does not strictly belong to the unenlightened past. ’s nominations prove that such judgments are planted firmly in the present.

The kinds of being written for people of colour over the past decade have begun to expand to encompass a wider range of experiences. Just recently we were graced with the luminous as stripper Ramona in Hustlers; newcomer Lum (Awkwafina) as the conflicted granddaughter of a matriarch in The Farewell; ’o in a remarkable two-in-one turn in ’s . This goes without mentioning the incredible performances that never quite picked up steam: Alfre Woodard in Clemency, for instance, or Song Kang-Ho in Parasite. But never the fertile pickings. This year the Academy has nominated one person of colour – Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet. This outcome is dismaying, partly because it falls neatly into a familiar pattern: a person of colour performing a racially specific form of suffering, the outlier in a of white nominees.

Erivo’s nomination for Harriet, a that received middling reviews, is not a preposterous decision. are often recognised for individual that might stand out in an otherwise mediocre film (take Renée Zellweger in Judy). I’m not bothered by the quality of Erivo’s performance. are far more egregious entries on that front, with the likes of for Bombshell, or Scarlet Johansson for Jojo , reaping nods (have ever been a legitimate meritocracy?). Far more worrisome is what Erivo’s nomination suggests about Academy voters evaluate performers of colour, who seem to be the most visible, and taken the most seriously, within the trappings of white pity.

That voters overlooked a performance like Nyong’o’s in Us, a chilling interpretation of two sides of the same self, is telling. It doesn’t matter that this performance matches, if not surpasses entirely that of Joaquin ’s in Joker, even though both actors play, with tremendous physical commitment, psychologically tormented characters in genre . Instead, the Academy prefers the Nyong’o who starred in (2013), a film in which she is a slave, raped and humiliated. For these efforts, so difficult for the conscience to ignore, she was awarded best supporting .

In the last decade, only 14 of colour were among the 100 nominated by the Academy for the best actress and best supporting actress . There were even fewer of colour (nine out of 100). That the same types of roles – slaves, nannies, and maids – continue to be the ticket to the carpet, feels particularly ugly considering the range of parts played by white nominees. This year, for instance, the characters of Erivo’s fellow best actress nominees a newswoman, an icon of classic , an aspiring young , and a hopeful divorcee. In 2019, Yalitza Aparicio was nominated for her performance in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Aparicio is one of the few Latin American actresses to receive the honour, joining Adriana Barraza as a deported nanny in Babel, and Catalina Sandino Moreno as a mule in Full of Grace.


As as these performances are, these films leave a bitter taste as they reaffirm tired conceptions of Latin American women. Aparicio plays a housemaid silently enduring and neglect, which recalls another Academy favourite – Tate ’s The (2011), which stars Octavia and as resilient maids, as well! Such slim parameters betray the desire, perhaps even the need by Oscar voters, for a particularly cheap form of pathos, one that simplifies and minimises the experiences of non-white people by placing them on the margins or in the past. Those performances that don’t with this mould are often considered too “,” too niche, or too subversive for the Academy, all of which indicates the incredible myopia of its body and the thinly veiled racism that guides it.

Perhaps hoping for a consistently diverse pool of Oscar nominees is ; the more passes, the anomalous triumphs of films such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, feel like a dream. By opening up its to more women and people of colour, and enlisting diverse talent such as , Issa Rae, and Haddish to present its nominations, the Academy has attempted to create an of inclusivity. But given this year’s batch of nominees, that commitment has proven to be both superficial and a .

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