Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in Doubt

Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in Doubt

Rule 7 of the Dogme 95 “Vow of Chastity” clearly states:

  • Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

Avant-garde puritanism like the “Vow” is obviously a world away from the star-fucking machinery of Hollywood, as the Oscar nominations, revealed today, annually reminds us. Not only is temporal and geographical displacement the very heart and soul of mainstream cinema fantasy-making, almost all the films taken “seriously” this year, like in past years, are period or historical films: Benjamin Button, Milk, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, and The Reader. The most prominent exception, Slumdog Millionaire, is also the most spectacular confirmation that geographical displacement (in terms of the Indian setting and British production) becomes all the more crucial to Academy ratification the closer a film impinges upon the present.

The reasons for this are, shall we say, overdetermined. But scanning today’s acting nominations, in which the only nominations nabbed by American actors of color were supporting roles in period dramas, suggest one factor. Taraji P. Henson in Benjamin Button, an “an extraordinary actress nominated for an unremarkable performance” as StinkyLulu aptly observes, and Viola Davis in Doubt, a stand-out in her single scene with Meryl Streep, both play what we could stop calling “the mammy role” if Hollywood would stop reinventing it.

Henson literally plays Brad Pitt’s surrogate mother in Benjamin Button (black women dote on white children no matter how hideous, the film suggests, but are rough and dismissive towards their own), a period piece set in, where else?, New Orleans. In a less racist fashion, Davis portrays a housekeeper who fiercely protects her own son from the mortal anti-black, anti-gay dangers of 1960s Brooklyn in Doubt. But what sympathy her character gleans comes at the cost of the boy’s father, absent from the screen, whose homophobia is presented as the single greatest threat to the boy’s life. Not a school of white boys, some of whom abuse him, not the all-white police force of the day, not even the priest who may be a pedophile: the figure whom the boy must be protected from is his father.

What secures these grotesque fictions of blackness in the mainstream imaginary is the unthinking equation of seriousness and ambition with period and historical drama. Of course, non-cliched historical stories about black people are possible (but can you think of one?) Still, I cannot help but observe how the neat avoidance of the here and now helps Hollywood avoid grappling with the facts of contemporary multiculturalism and gender equality.

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