It's one thing to be a Hollywood heavy-hitter and launch into a political tirade at an awards show (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando in absentia -- I could go on), or to be a professional provocateur and do the same (as filmmaker Michael Moore did famously in 2003). It's quite another thing to be a modestly successful, until-recently struggling black actress -- with a supporting role as a 1960s Southern maid in one of the most racially polarizing films since "Driving Miss Daisy" -- and deliver an acceptance speech that confronts the scathing critics, invokes the silent dignity of domestic workers everywhere, and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of the national holiday commemorating his life. All while managing to look good in a lilac dress and uplifting everyone around you on live television.
For actress Octavia Spencer, winning wasn't the only accomplishment when she made her way to the stage at last night's Golden Globe Awards, accepting the prize for her role as the outspoken Minnie Jackson in the blockbuster movie "The Help." The Alabama native, who beat out bigger names like Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Mo'Nique in landing the part, walked the fine line of award-show commentary skillfully and succinctly. She did not directly acknowledge the avalanche of criticism that greeted "The Help," much of it from black culture critics, commentators, academics and the movie-going public (me included) who swore off the film, saying they just could not stomach seeing yet another talented black actress reduced to playing a subservient, stereotypical domestic role on the big screen.
This is what Spencer had to say to those critics, and to the world: "With regard to domestics in this country, now and then, I think Dr. King said it best: 'All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance,' and I thank you for recognizing that with our film." Spencer was quoting from King's 1967 book "Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community," written months before his death.
Today, at breakfasts, church services and concerts, a lot of us have invoked King, one of the most quoted and excerpted figures of our time. It took several lions of American history -- Jefferson, Lincoln, Patrick Henry -- to coin the phrases that would anchor a young nation's political philosophy and moral cry for freedom: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." "A house divided against itself cannot stand." "Give me liberty or give me death." But in his 39 short years, King managed to turn phrases that rank with all of those, conjuring words that have become synonymous with the quest for basic human rights. They're not just phrases of incredible vision; they're phrases of incredible economy, the hashtags to end all hashtags. I have a dream. Free at last. Prophetically, with an unearthly acceptance of what lay right around the corner: I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.
But as widely quoted as King is, the words he committed to paper aren't read nearly enough, not in context and in their entirety. "Where Do We Go From Here?" is among the least read of all, despite the fact that it was his final work, and despite the radical steps he took to complete it, cutting himself off completely from the demands of the civil rights movement and sequestering himself in a rented house on the north coast of Jamaica. King had something he desperately wanted to say, and he said it in a book that linked the fight against racism with the fight against economic injustice and the global struggle for freedom. Today, we occupy city parks, town squares and campus lawns. King occupied spaces that were both physical and abstract. He stirred souls with his unarmed, prostrate, sometimes jailed body, but also with his spiritual core and his commitment to a life of the mind.
I've often wondered how the black actresses of "The Help" have dealt with the informal boycotting, the loud derision, the shaking heads and collectively raised brows of a deeply skeptical black America. We are right to bemoan the lack of opportunities for people of color in Hollywood (and every other town in America, still). We are right to be outraged about the reductive truths about black identity and the struggle for civil rights that "The Help" would have us believe. We correctly notice a depressing trend in most of the roles the entertainment world chooses to honor: a single welfare mother (Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball"), an illiterate chauffeur (Morgan Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy"), a corrupt narcotics detective (Denzel Washington in "Training Day") and yes, this year, the help.
But even with all that, it was impossible last night not to root for an actress, and a performance, that exemplifies another principle King laid out in his final book. Invoking factory workers and famous African Americans, lowly butlers and the first blacks to reach corporate boardrooms, King said this: "We must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait until the day of full emancipation before we set out to make our individual and collective contributions to the life of our nation."
This is a longer version of King's quote from "Where Do We Go From Here?":
We are challenged on every hand to work untiring to achieve excellence in our lifework. Not all men are called to specialized or professional jobs; even fewer rise to the heights of genius in the arts and sciences; many are called to be laborers in factories, fields, and streets. But no work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."
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