There is a lot of awards buzz for Oprah Winfrey’s triumphant return to the big screen as Gloria Gaines in The Butler. With critics praising her role as Forest Whitaker’s character's wife, Oscar bloggers declaring her the early front-runner for Best Supporting Actress, and even President Obama being moved to tears by her performance, the queen of talk may be positioned to claim her second Academy Award (she has an honorary Oscar for humanitarian work). That The Butler topped the box office for three weeks doesn’t hurt her chances either. A win for her would be deserved—she's wonderful in the film.
But it'd also be the latest example of what seems to be a Hollywood maxim: Black women only get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when they play characters who confirm the stereotype of the Sassy Black Lady—bold, sharp-tongued, impertinent.
Hattie McDaniel was the first Black actress to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, playing house-slave Mammy who was warm and witty with her slave-owners. Half a century later, Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost by playing Oda Mae Brown, a psychic with no back-story of her own and whose entire purpose was to support a White couple and entertain the audience with sass talk. In recent years, Black actresses started winning Best Supporting Actress more frequently. Jennifer Hudson won for Dreamgirls by playing Effie White, a diva with too much attitude to remain in a successful pop group and just enough attitude to cover And I Am Telling You. Mo’nique won for Precious by playing Mary Lee Johnston, an abusive mother whose sassiness was taken to a monstrous extreme as she terrorized her daughter out of her own fear of being alone and unloved. And Octavia Spencer won for playing The Help's Minny Jackson, a back-talking maid who fried chicken, cracked jokes, and literally made a racist employer eat shit while her husband beat her.