MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Eddie Murphy did not walk away with an Oscar last night. He was an early favorite to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dream Girls," but in the days leading up to the Academy Awards, there was speculation that his latest film, "Norbit" might hurt Murphy's chances.
In that film, Murphy puts on a fat suit to play the obnoxious and grotesquely obese character of Rasputia, making a painful racial stereotype the central joke of the movie.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: When Esther Iverem went to the movies recently with her teenage son, she was confronted by a poster for "Norbit" showing a huge black woman in a pink negligee. Iverem is editor and film critic for SeeingBlack.com.
ESTHER IVEREM: It was everywhere. We were assaulted with this image. And so even if I decided not to see the movie, I was already assaulted by the images and ideas that the movie wanted to convey to me and my family.
NEARY: And what were those ideas? What were the ideas that were coming at you just from that image?
IVEREM: That this image of a black woman as large and grotesque and almost bestial. You know, she's just not really human.
NEARY: Big, black women have been a mainstay of Hollywood's racial stereotypes since the beginning of film. Perhaps no one benefited more and suffered more from the stereotype than Hattie McDaniel. She was the first black to win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Mammy in the 1939 film, "Gone With the Wind."
Even after winning the Oscar, the only roles she could get were mammies and maids, a role she played with a vengeance in the film, "Mad Miss Manton."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAD MISS MANTON")
BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Melsa Manton) Hilda, the door.
HATTIE MCDANIEL: (As Hilda) I heard it. I ain't deaf. Sometimes I wished I was.
STANWYCK: (As Melsa Manton) (Unintelligible) another piece of cake, Hilda?
MCDANIEL: (As Hilda) Yes, I have but the kitchen's closed for the night.
NEARY: McDaniel, says biographer Jill Watts, was a big woman, but Hollywood wanted her even bigger.
JILL WATTS: What Hollywood was doing was padding her figure and even up until the time of "Gone With the Wind," even though she was a full-figured woman, they still felt the need to continue to exaggerate the black female body.
NEARY: McDaniel struggled with her weight her whole life, and says Watts, she also suffered from heart disease and diabetes, illnesses that still claim many lives in the black community. Given that, says Watts, it's ironic that Hollywood would make a movie like "Norbit" that pokes fun at a character who is morbidly obese.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NORBIT")
EDDIE MURPHY: (As Rasputia) You're too damn skinny. Look at you. Most men like a woman that got a little, a little hey, hey. You ain't got nothing, just skin and bones and sitting in a chair all bones and skin. I feel sorry for you.
NEARY: Watts says that when a black star as successful as Eddie Murphy creates a film like "Norbit," it makes her wonder just how much Hollywood really has changed.
WATTS: It's undeniable things have changed. The Hollywood that Hattie McDaniel played in was rigidly segregated but the construction of images that Hollywood's willing to offer, willing to market, willing to distribute, may not have changed that much. And black performers may still find themselves kind of restricted.
NEARY: Eddie Murphy is not the first black actor to don a fat suit to portray a black woman. Martin Lawrence did it in "Big Momma's House" and Tyler Perry is well-padded when he plays Medea, a character he created first in the theater and then on film.
Perry doesn't see a connection between Medea and Rasputia.
TYLER PERRY: I went to see "Norbit" and I saw it with a woman who is over 300 pounds and as she was watching it, she was extremely offended. You know, for her, she thought it was very mean-spirited.
NEARY: Perry makes no apologies for his character. Medea's a big tough woman who doesn't believe in sparing the rod when it comes to disciplining children and she's been known to carry a gun. But Perry says she represents a beloved grandmother figure who was once a fixture in black neighborhoods.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYLER PERRY'S PERFORMANCE)
PERRY: (As Medea) I take care of his kids when he in court and I take care of my great-niece and her children. They at my house, too, because I open my house up to anybody in need. Anybody in need they can come to my house and get a good meal and everything. That's why I can't be tired. Tired, I have to be going to the store and stuff for people.
NEARY: Medea has been criticized as yet another stereotypical image and Perry acknowledges there is a fine line between a beloved archetype and an insulting stereotype.
What Hollywood really needs to do, says Perry, is to create a wide range of roles for black women.
PERRY: We would like to see more images of ourselves and what we look like rather than seeing everybody as a size 2 and having very fair skin and long black hair. I mean, there are different shades of who we are as African American people and this type of person has completely been swept away from society and she does still exist and she is a large part of the audience that has supported my Medea character.
NEARY: If Hollywood wants to make those kinds of movies, the actresses are out there, says film critic Esther Iverem. She believes even thin gorgeous black women like Halle Berry still face a limited choice of roles in Hollywood. As for big gorgeous women like Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson, they can give the character of the big black woman a new dignity.
What makes the difference between insult and celebration, says Iverem, is intention.
IVEREM: If your intent is to mock the body, to make a statement that's fat is ugly, then that's what you'll do. If you are making a statement that big is beautiful, and this is what I guess Mo'Nique is saying, what Jennifer Hudson is saying, is what Queen Latifah has said. That's different. I think that those are two different statements. And there you have it right there: the power of voice, the power of perspective, and the power you have to promote your image all over the place and all over my mall.
NEARY: It will pass time, says Iverem, to leave behind all the stereotypical roles that have defined black women - the mammy, the Jezebel, the Sapphire - and replace them with characters based in reality.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.