Mo’Nique at the Oscars: Politics vs. Performance

8 Mar

Happy International Women’s Day! Now let’s get to it . . .

Mo’Nique might have said last night that it was about “the performance and not the politics” but when she invoked the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win an Oscar, she proved that it is always about the politics. Back in 1939, McDaniel wanted simply to be “a credit to [her] race.” Beyond merely paying homage to McDaniel in words, Mo’Nique attempted to embody her, wearing a large white flower reminiscent of the one McDaniel wore when she received the award. By (rightly) situating herself within the tradition of Hattie McDaniel, Mo’Nique invited us through her own words –and through her superbly troubling portrayal of Mary Jones—to ask: What is our racial credit score? Do we have enough cultural capital to be able to afford yet another troubling representation of Black motherhood and womanhood?  For these two women and their Oscar winning roles book-end a catalogue of representations of Black mothering, that leave one staggering for perspective and grasping for any slice of reality.

To offer another metaphor, they create an arc, an umbrella that starts with Mammy and ends with the Welfare Queen, and ensconses every negative stereotype of Black womanhood in between. Memorialized by McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, the Mammy– that ever-nurturing, sometimes sassy, always-loving, self-sacrificing and asexual mother– continues to anchor White Americans pastoral remembrances of girlhood and boyhood. At the other end are the Mary Joneses of the world, the welfare queens, the lazy, cunning, ignorant, abusive tangles of pathology that remain a thorn in the side of Black America. And if McDaniel’s and Mo’Nique’s performances are the umbrella of representations of Black mothers, then Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning performance of the heroic white mother in The Blind Side is the curved handle, the lever at the center, which has the power to make the umbrella as narrow or as wide as we wish, as formidable or innocuous as we need. And it is a curved handle because such performances hook you and handle you, while making you believe you control the lever.  If our recent credit crisis has taught us anything, it is this: when White America gets a rain shower, Black America gets a hurricane.  And when you’re caught in the whirlwind of volatile representations, wielding your umbrella is surely an exercise in futility.

6 Responses to “Mo’Nique at the Oscars: Politics vs. Performance”

  1. alex March 11, 2010 at 9:43 AM #

    Thanks for bringing up the “blind side” in your cogent analysis. people say “it’s a true story” and that alone seems to justify its production and celebration of heroic whiteness yet again (Avatar) and again (Hurt Locker). The umbrella metaphor is brilliant.

    • brittneycooper March 11, 2010 at 3:47 PM #

      Thanks, Alex. Yes, I, too, am tired of these uncritical celebrations of white heroism. Frankly, America is blind to the reality of loving, positive, Black motherhood; and it is a deliberate blindness that keeps getting reinforced through these problematic representations.

  2. ashafrench March 16, 2010 at 6:35 PM #

    Wow! I love how you unpacked this metaphor– with the heroic white mother as the lever that controls the arc of representations of black mothering. I’m also interested in what the two ends of the arc you identified say about the value of black children– their place in what Edelman calls reproductive futurism.

    From Hattie McDaniel to Jennifer Hudson (Secret Life of White Children who Play with Black Bees), the black mother figure is at her best (jovial, sassy, inventive, nurturing, understanding…) when she is other-mothering white children. The black mother is at her absolute worst when she mothers black children.

    I realize that art sometimes imitates life and I recognize that Push/ Precious, like The Color Purple, was a story that needed to be told. But those stories are about the radicality of speaking and the empowerment of the storyteller– not the monstrosity of the abusers.

    So I think that as the academy focuses on Monique’s “eerily believable” (really, folks, is it that hard to believe that a black woman can be a monster?) depiction of Mary Jones, the celebrations of Monique and Bullock speak volumes about the academy’s evaluation of the worth(lessness) of those abandoned/ redeemed children and the not-so-precious futures they represent.

  3. brittneycooper March 16, 2010 at 7:14 PM #

    Thanks, CF Asha! I can’t wait to read what you have to say! I totally agree about the distinction between black women mothering white children versus black children, and about what the Color Purple and PUSH were really about. But I think that something always gets lost in translation when novels become screenplays, and definitely when those novels are by and about Black women. I’ve been wondering for years why positive representations of us are always two-dimensional and therefore unbelievable and why negative representations of us seem four-dimensional, i.e. larger than life. Can we just get a regular three-dimension black person on the screen who is compelling b/c their believable and the converse? I also suspect that someone could/should do a reading of Mary Jones using Bakhtin’s notions of the grotesque–i.e. Rabelais and His World.

  4. Amanda April 1, 2010 at 8:13 PM #

    I just found this website and I am just in awe of this post – really beautiful, lucid, clarifying prose. Thank you! I intend to point my humanities students this way.

    • crunktastic April 1, 2010 at 8:35 PM #

      Thank you much, Amanda! Please also become a fan of the Collective on Facebook.

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