It was a big night for actress Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for “Fences”. Her crowning achievement comes after a long and illustrious career of numerous awards and three Oscar nominations. The Oscar nod also highlights Hollywood’s interest in complex minority characters.
For those who watched Denzel Washington’s film drama “Fences”, about the intricate family dynamics in a 1950’s African American household, it is difficult to forget Davis’ powerhouse performance. She plays Rose, the introspective wife who stands by her man, aware of his imperfections. She perseveres next to him not with deference but with dignity. She is the balancing act between her explosive husband and her brooding son, and when her philandering husband, played by Denzel Washington, brings home a baby, she accepts it not because she has to, but because she chooses to.
This is not the first time Davis fleshes out complex characters; but, her Oscar win underscores the movie industry’s commitment to such characters.
Another example is Mahershala Ali, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Juan, a drug dealer in a poor Miami neighborhood, in the indie drama “Moonlight”. Juan finds himself taking care of a boy abandoned by his own mother, a drug addict. In this role, Ali is both criminal and nurturer.
Giovanna Chesler, director of George Mason University’s film school, says this recognition was years in the making.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of there’s more films representing black experience in America. I think it’s great films that represent the black experience that are being pushed to the fore finally and being recognized,“ she says.
Chesler attributes the trend in part to audiences who, “were starving” for stories like that, she says. She also notes that actors and filmmakers such as David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay who rolled out great work in previous years – but were not part of the Oscars conversation – laid the groundwork for this year’s awards.
DuVernay, who made the film drama “Selma” three years ago, and David Oyelowo, who starred as Martin Luther King, Jr., did not win accolades, but their work has passed into the annals of great acting and movie making. Now, DuVernay, who also directed the acclaimed documentary “13th” about incarceration in America, has been tapped by Disney studios to direct a big budget fantasy drama.
And then there is Oscar winner Denzel Washington. In a class of his own, Washington has for years been part of Hollywood’s mainstream, but still tries to push the envelope with contentious characters and projects. He directed and adapted August Wilson’s theater play Fences for the big screen, and portrays Rose’s conflicted husband, Troy.
When asked by VOA to analyze his character – a blistering man, dubious husband and unforgiving father – Washington replied, “Who is Troy? He doesn’t know. He’s working it out. That why there is great drama because it is drama, ’cause all the questions are not answered when the curtain goes up.”
And who didn’t love the film “Hidden Figures”, a heartwarming hit drama about three African American women who helped NASA in the ’60s send the first American into space and then on the moon? The movie has won the hearts and minds of fans, a reminder that audiences crave stories with non-formulaic characters in unconventional situations.
When these characters and stories win, we all do, because such narratives become the catalyst of equality in popular culture. So, the more such roles are awarded, the more the film industry is encouraged to push the envelope in casting.
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