When it was time to present the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony last month, nothing was more right than Octavia Spencer’s name being called. Her performance in “The Help” as Minny Jackson alongside Viola Davis (who was also splendid, as always) was extraordinary.
Heck, she would have been worthy of the gold statuette if only for that powerful “revenge” scene. (Some people will never think of chocolate pie the same way again!) Her racist, mean-spirited employer was taught an unforgettable lesson, to say the least.
Spencer’s Oscar acceptance speech came straight from the heart and is firmly embedded in the minds and hearts of many thousands of people.
Although the speech was movingly poignant, it also had a light moment that brought smiles and laughs. Specifically, it was when she said, “Oh, thank you! Thank you, Academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room.” (That “guy” being “Oscar.”)
In a way, Spencer had what could be described as an inside track. Through a friend (film director Tate Taylor) she had met and become friends with Kathryn Stockett, whose book, “The Help,” the yet-to-be-made movie was based on. Stockett developed many aspects of the Minny Jackson character from Spencer.
THERE ARE those who have issues with a movie focusing on Black women being in subservient positions as maids. But “The Help” takes place in the deep South (Jackson, Mississippi) in the early 1960s.
Moreover, there is nothing shameful about being employed as a maid (then or now). It pays the bills, it’s honest work and, in fact, these hardworking ladies had a lot to do with the survival of the African-American family. (Spencer’s mother having worked as a maid gave her additional insight.)
We didn’t just leap from slavery to things changing to the extent that a Black man could be elected president of the United States. There was much in between, and denying history has never helped anyone.
OCTAVIA SPENCER, born in Montgomery, Alabama, is far from being a newcomer to the acting world. In fact, she has been practicing her craft since the mid-1990s, landing a door-opening role as a nurse in the 1996 film “A Time to Kill.” It starred Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock.
Interestingly, she might not have fulfilled her dream of becoming an actress had she acquiesced to the wishes of her mother. She felt that her daughter would be much better off pursuing a career elsewhere, considering the odds of making it in show business, along with the constant uncertainties even if she were to make it.
Mothers very often know best, but in some cases they do not fully grasp the importance of one marching to the beat of one’s own drummer.
After “A Time to Kill,” Spencer quickly realized that a move to Los Angeles was necessary. Although she had no professional training, she (rightfully) felt that she could get the job done. She was what is referrred to as “a natural.”
SPENCER WAS excited to secure a second film assignment, in “The Sixth Man.” However, as happens often in the movie business, much of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor.
That was a major disappointment, but hardly enough to sidetrack a determined actress.
Spencer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Auburn University (in Auburn, Alabama), auditioned constantly, always keeping her eyes and ears open for parts that she felt she was suitable for, all the more so if it offered a special challenge.
From 1997 to the present, Spencer was hired for a long string of film and TV roles, though not enough to make her a household name.
On the big screen she has been seen in, among others, “Spider-Man,” “The Soloist,” “Beauty Shop,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous,” “Big Momma’s House,” “Coach Carter” and “Bad Santa.”
Television viewers have noticed Spencer in such programs as “Malcolm in the Middle.” “Raising the Bar,” “Ugly Betty,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Dharma & Greg,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER.”
In addition to the Academy Award, Octavia Spencer has been honored at the NAACP Image Awards, the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, the Black Reel Awards and at the Hollywood Film Festival and more.