10.22.2012

The advocate: Meryl Streep, Adepero Oduye and the state of race in contemporary American film



Last spring, when Queen Meryl was making the rounds at the awards circuit for her performance in The Iron Lady, shifting back and forth between false modesty and genuine modesty, she started doing this thing where she would go “stop paying attention to me—there are all of these great up-and-coming young actresses who are more deserving of recognition than I am!”  Then she would drop the names of said great up-and-coming young actresses, as if to say, “look, I’m handing the crown over; take it and give it to someone else.”  (She did the same thing a few years ago after making Doubt; at one awards ceremony or another she singled out Viola Davis’ performance in that same film, begging Hollywood studio executives to “give this woman a movie.”)  This time around the actresses she singled out were Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) and Adepero Oduye of Dee Rees’ Pariah (2012), pictured above.  The film—Rees’ first feature—is an intimate character study of a Brooklyn teen (Oduye) whose emergent lesbianism causes conflict in her relationship with her religious conservative mother (Kim Wayans).  It’s a watchable film, if not always a sure-footed one, and the performances are mostly solid (I preferred the raw, violent edges of Wayans’ to Oduye’s quieter, more subdued work, though the film is clearly designed to showcase the latter, and Oduye will no doubt go on to bigger and better things.  She’s already slated to appear in Steve McQueen’s next film, Twelve Years a Slave).  

It’s possible to read Streep’s going-out-of-her-way to champion underexposed black actresses as condescending, a throwback to the days when white women writers like Lydia Maria Child had to co-sign the work of black women writers like Harriet Jacobs in order to give it validity in the eyes of a largely racist white American reading public.  But, given the dearth of good roles for black actresses in Hollywood today, I would say that even the likes of Davis and Oduye need all the help they can get, and that Streep has proven herself a canny ally in her attempts to use her power and influence to help advance their careers.  The movie business has a history of being especially cruel to black actresses, especially when they're not seen as "fuckable" (to use a handy industry term).  A film about black women directed by a black woman, Pariah is itself something rare in American cinema, where the market is driven largely by the tastes of straight white teenage boys.  Rees has not yet found her groove as a filmmaker, but hers is a welcome presence, and I hope she and Oduye stick around.  Give these women movies.

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