You can almost time it. When a hometown kid arrives, the “we knew her when” pieces aren’t far behind. Shortly after The Help made Octavia Spencer famous, The Birmingham News interviewed Jefferson Davis High School guidance counselor Mrs. Evelyn Moore. “Whatever she did, she did it well and she was never shy. You knew she just had it…there was something about Octavia that stood out and everyone knew she would be something.” Evelyn Moore knew it. The Help writer/director Tate Taylor knew it. What took the rest of us so long?
Octavia Spencer graduated ol’ Jefferson Davis in 1988. She was one of seven kids raised by her mom Dellsena Spencer, who worked as a maid and died when Spencer was a teenager. She went on to Auburn University, where you might be surprised to learn she did not study to become an RN, considering it’s a job she’s done between 30 and 40 times on screen, along with an almost equal number of largely nameless cashiers and security guards.
Spencer actually majored in English with a double minor in journalism and theater, and the role she originally planned for herself was behind the camera. She worked in casting on a number of local Alabama productions and finally asked to audition for the role of a political agitator in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill. “Joel said, ‘No honey, your face is too sweet. You can be Sandy [Bullock]’s nurse,’” Spencer recalls.
Well, there you have it. Her friend and fellow Southerner Tate Taylor encouraged her to move to L.A. in 1997 to pursue acting, and she quickly dotted scores of movies and TV shows, most often in the aforementioned capacities. As briefly or namelessly as she might have appeared, she grabbed us every time. Her face is sweet, but we learned it could morph in a moment to comic wide-eyed disbelief, steely don’t-screw-with-me resolve, wry skepticism, or genuine warmth – making her one of the best reactors in the business. Her roles in Big Momma's House, Miss Congeniality 2, Beauty Shop, Moesha, Chicago Hope, and Ugly Betty, (to name 6 out of nearly 100), were often cited as one of their bright spots, and Entertainment Weekly named her one of Hollywood’s 25 funniest women. Yet after 15 years, most of us still knew her as, “Oh yeah, that funny, sassy black lady.”
Then came her appearance as the funny, sassy maid Minny Jackson in The Help, a role that was hers before the screenplay was ever written. When the author of the novel it was based on was having difficulty finding the character’s voice, she called her friend Octavia for help. When Spencer finally embodied Minny on the screen, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Spencer’s scrappy Minny Jackson provides not only comic relief but a feistiness that shows that some maids found the gumption and means to get back at overbearing employers. Hers is a great character, the antithesis of Gone With the Wind’s Mammy, and she nearly upends this movie with her righteous sass.” You know the story from there. More raves, wide recognition and an Oscar ensued, and voilà! – no more nurse roles.
No, now she was being offered maids. And the offers were substantial, but Spencer knew she had to start saying no to stereotypes to continue growing as an artist, and that she’d need to step outside the studios to show what she could do.
She appeared in “Smashed,” James Ponsoldt’s 2012 rumination on alcoholism, and NPR called out her bitingly emotional performance as the mother of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot by a white Oakland transit officer in Fruitvale Station. Then came the dystopian sci-fi Snowpiercer and 2015’s Black or White, in which Spencer starred opposite Kevin Costner, playing Rowna Jeffers, the protective grandmother of a biracial girl. “Ms. Spencer turns the strict, truth-telling Rowena into a mighty force,” said The New York Times. “Her wide-eyed stare gives her the gravity of an all-seeing sage who doesn’t miss a trick and is not afraid to speak her mind. Rowena may be a clichéd Earth Mother, but Ms. Spencer imbues her with a fierce severity.”
She stepped back into studio films in a big, Oscar-nominated way with Hidden Figures, playing mathematician Dorothy Vaughan. Despite her reluctance to do period films (no “period” to date having been particularly uplifting to the African- American experience), her anger made her unable to resist. She thought a story about black women working for NASA in the ’60s had to be fiction. No – it was just one of many real stories that never get told.
Despite the range of roles she’s being offered now, Spencer’s joked that she’s yet to play anyone remotely like herself, a single, rom-com lovin’ kinda lady. But she sees one that very much fits the bill. At this year’s Makers conference she told Gloria Steinem “The role I'm destined to play is to be one of the greatest producers in Hollywood. It's a huge undertaking, but I want to be a conduit for storytellers."
She’s already put her money where her mouth is. She became a producer on Fruitvale Station to help with its financing, and continues to support minority directors and young actors. She’s currently producing a biopic series of Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American female millionaire. Where she is not putting her money is homogeneity. “If I look down a list of characters on a film, and it doesn’t have gay, African-American or Latino characters, I’m probably not going to spend my money on the ticket,” she told Deadline. “When we stop supporting things with our dollars that don’t represent all of us, then you’ll see an explosion of diversity. Art is about reaching people that you wouldn’t normally reach. It’s about bringing us together.”
Spencer determined long ago that BMWs and five-closet wardrobes weren’t going to determine when she arrived. It would be when she was steering the ship. But maybe the best measure of success is what you do with your ship when it comes in. “After Hidden Figures, I don’t have a problem saying to a room of male executives: ‘I need a female writer or a female director,’ or ‘I need a black voice or a Latin voice. I don’t feel bad about that.” To some, that might sound like sass. To us, it sounds like a boss.