Despite torrents of debate among African-Americans over the merits of the segregation-era movie "The Help," most still hoped that Viola Davis, who plays a maid, would become just the second black winner of the Best Actress Oscar.
And so there was widespread disappointment when Davis lost the Academy Award to Meryl Streep on Sunday night. Still, ambivalence tinged the reaction: Besides regret that the ranks of black Oscar winners remain small, many felt relief that a role viewed as stereotypical was not honored.
"Oohhhhhhhnnnnnnooooooooooooooo," wailed Robinne Lee on Twitter.
Lee, a black actress who has appeared in films such as "Seven Pounds" and "Hotel for Dogs," said in an interview that Streep embodies excellence and deserved to win. "But Viola had so much hype this year, and there was so much excitement, and it conjured up so much controversy in the black community about this role, so (the loss) was disappointing."
Yet Lee felt a mix of emotions, since she is eager to see more diverse movie casts in a wider variety of roles. Adding to the conundrum was the Best Supporting Actress victory of Octavia Spencer, who played another maid in "The Help." Prior to Sunday, only 13 black actors had won Hollywood's highest honor in the Oscars' 84-year history. Only Halle Berry had been chosen Best Actress, for playing a wounded soul who finds solace in the arms of a white man in "Monster's Ball."
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar, for a supporting role as a maid in the Dixie-glorifying "Gone With the Wind." Since then, a high percentage of black Oscar nominees and winners have played characters such as slaves, African despots, welfare recipients, dysfunctional mothers, drug-addicted musicians or drug-dealing cops.
With Spencer's award, maid roles are responsible for two of the six Oscars won by black actresses. Streep earned the third Oscar of her career for playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Which made Lee wonder: "How inspiring would it be if we could be nominated in roles where we are playing kings, queens, politicians, writers, artists, dancers … we could soar."
Of the 5,765 people who vote on the Oscars, nearly 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male, according to a Los Angeles Times study.