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Young, Black and Nominated: Enough?

A long post-Oscar career isn't guaranteed for Quvenzhané Wallis

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March 6, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Root on February 23, 2013.

By Jacqueline Stewart

A dream came true for Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis recently when she met actress China McClain on the set of McClain's show, A.N.T. Farm on the Disney Channel. Upon learning of her Oscar nomination, the 9-year-old Wallis reportedly expressed more excitement about the chance to meet her favorite teen TV stars than she did about hearing she will walk the red carpet on Sunday with Hollywood's elite.

It is fitting that Wallis would make a stop at Disney headquarters in what looks like a fairy tale year. Turning in a powerful performance in the critically acclaimed independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis became the 10th black actress ever to be nominated by the academy for a leading role, receiving recognition that continues to be elusive for African-American performers.

But celebrating Wallis' nomination as a historic black achievement is not as simple as it has been for Gabby Douglas' gold medal wins at the Olympics last summer in London. Or for Halle Berry's watershed, first-time win for a black actress in a leading role for Monster's Ball in 2002.

Wallis is not only the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (Tatum O'Neal was 10 when she won the best supporting actress award in 1974 for her work in Paper Moon), she is also an amateur with no previous acting experience. This combination of factors has raised questions about whether Wallis deserves her Oscar nomination. Where is the acting in Wallis' performance? 

We might wonder if Wallis can have a career in Hollywood post-Beasts. As she gets older, will she lose the innocent and raw qualities that make her performance as Hushpuppy so powerful and distinctive? Will her performance in the upcoming Steve McQueen film Twelve Years a Slave, in the company of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt, be a litmus test of her Oscar-worthiness? Answers to these questions are important, because the selection of Wallis over more experienced actresses for one of the five most coveted spots in the entertainment industry evokes longstanding beliefs about black authenticity and persistent anxieties about African-American competence and achievement.

From ongoing debates about affirmative action, such as the Fisher v. University of Texas case currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, to the rapid rise of Barack Obama from the Illinois Legislature to the U.S. presidency, black advancements in predominantly white fields continue to be tinged with skepticism and jealousy.

As a result, those who would defend Wallis' portrayal of Hushpuppy as one of the year's best film performances risk charges of knee-jerk political correctness that pushes for diversity over merit. On the other hand, those who might question the appropriateness of the academy's nod to Wallis risk the charge of mean-spiritedness, if not racism.

 Wallis' long list of award nominations from critics' societies and festivals, the NAACP and the academy begs questions about how film acting is evaluated as a craft. What difference does it make that Wallis was cast for type rather than for acting experience? If Wallis turned in a performance that grew out of her "natural" sense of fearlessness and ethics, does this diminish the impact of her presence on screen or her contribution to Beasts of the Southern Wild as a work of art?

The makers of Beasts defend her talents. But the story the filmmakers consistently tell about choosing Wallis from more than 3,500 children they auditioned for the role contributes to the sense that she already embodied Hushpuppy before the cameras started rolling.

A similar story was told about the casting of Keisha Castle-Hughes, whose record as the youngest actress nominated for an Oscar for a leading role (age 13) was broken by Wallis this year. For the 2003 film Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes was reportedly selected from a pool of 10,000 New Zealand children to play Pai, a Maori girl who fights to become the first female leader of her tribe. The parallels between Wallis/Hushpuppy and Castle-Hughes/Pai are striking. Feisty spirits on and off camera, these girls of color are praised for the refreshing authenticity they bring to their roles (Castle-Hughes was the second Polynesian ever nominated for an Academy Award). 

But the question immediately arises: How much of an acting career can these actors have when there are so few roles for outsiders like them, and when the mainstream attention they receive for their debut roles dulls the sparkle of their outsider charm? Is the imprimatur of an Oscar nomination wasted on very young and inexperienced actors, particularly actors of color, whose prospects for future high-profile roles are shaky at best?

When Oprah Winfrey took the stage at the 2010 Academy Awards to describe Gabourey Sidibe's gut-wrenching performance in her first screen role as Precious, she audaciously proclaimed Sidibe "a true American Cinderella, on the threshold of a brilliant new career." Significantly, Winfrey took great pains to distinguish Sidibe the actress from her on-screen role as an abused Harlem teen.

"The transformation from your own joyous, positive, radiant, fun self to the heartbreaking despair of that girl Precious -- where did you learn how to do that?" Noting that Sidibe's competition that night included Meryl Streep, Winfrey pointed out to the fans at home and to the media-industry leaders in attendance that Sidibe was acting. She was a college student who summoned skills beyond her physical correspondence with the dark-skinned, 350-pound African-American teenager she was cast to portray.

Making the same case for Quvenzhané Wallis as an actor will prove much more difficult, due to the authenticity implied by her tender age and cultivated by her film's director.

Shooting on location in an isolated Southern Louisiana fishing community, Beasts of the Southern Wild director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin worked painstakingly to put together a cast of Louisiana-based non-actors, and to shape the film's narrative in response to the stories and feelings they shared.

Zeitlin told Smithsonian magazine that half of the 20 finalists for the role of Hushpuppy were white girls. Wallis stood out from the crowd, and other casting decisions were made after she was in place. For example, Dwight Henry, a local baker who plays Hushpuppy's father, Wink, describes how he presented Wallis with boxes of homemade sweets because winning her over was a requirement for him to get the role.

It would be inaccurate to say, then, that Wallis was simply playing herself in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her performance was part of larger collaborative process in which her distinct personality and abilities played a major role. It is also a reminder that most film performances, particularly those that go on to be Oscar-nominated, are products of collaboration between actors and the directors, writers, cinematographers, costume and make-up designers, fellow actors and many, many others who frame, influence and present their work.

It is so tempting to read Wallis through the lens of authenticity, whether we want to praise the rare realism she brings to her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild or argue that she does not display an Oscar-worthy mastery of the craft of acting.

Even the most cynical of haters would find it hard not to enjoy Wallis' adorable performances as herself this awards season, as she appears to be genuinely enjoying her unexpected fame and accolades as much as her interviewers and fans. Whether she is carrying a sequined puppy purse down the red carpet or trading quips on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the little girl from Houma, La., comes across as another real-life black "American Cinderella."

Such Hollywood fairy tales make us feel as though we are making progress in the long, hard road toward racial equality. But these fairy tales also obscure the labors of performance and the institutional politics that determine how a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild gets made and seen. They also undermine the idea that the achievements of talented "minorities" like Quvenzhané Wallis are real and justly earned.

- Jacqueline Stewart is associate professor at Northwestern University in Radio/Television/Film and African American Studies.