It all comes down to respect—which Spencer, as a black woman in Hollywood, has clearly not been on the receiving end of.
Thursday, at a Sundance Film Festival panel titled “Women Breaking Barriers,” Spencer shared that her salary hasn’t been up to snuff in Hollywood. She’s currently developing a film with her friend and The Help co-star Jessica Chastain, and Spencer educated Chastain on the fact that while white women make less than men do in Hollywood, women of color make far less than that. “Here’s the thing, women of color on that spectrum, we make far less than white women,” Spencer said. “So, if we’re gonna have that conversation about pay equity, we gotta bring the women of color to the table.”
It’s not just evident in stories like the one Taraji P. Henson shared about her meager salary for working on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Mo’Nique’s claim that Netflix offered her $500,000 compared to Amy Schumer’s $13 million for a comedy special. It’s also evident in how we discuss women of color in conversations about diversity. How many times have you read the phrase “people of color and women” (I’ve been guilty of it myself), which implies that women of color don’t exist? People of color and women taken literally means people of color and “white women.” We should start saying “people of color and white women” if we’re going to pay respect to women like Spencer, Henson, or even women like Dee Rees when discussing the 2018 Oscar nominations’ diversity. To say “people of color and women” singles out women like Greta Gerwig and Emily V. Gordon and erases Rees as a woman of color. But I’ve digressed.
Spencer went on to explain that once Chastain realized how high the pay inequality is for women of color in Hollywood, she insisted that her deal was tied to Spencer’s. According to Spencer, Chastain said, “Octavia we’re gonna get you paid on this film. You and I are gonna be tied together. We’re gonna be favored nations, and we’re gonna make the same thing.” After that, Spencer ended up with five times what she asked for, allowing her to raise her quote. That’s the work of a true ally, with Chastain doing the work instead of talking the talk or merely tweeting about intersectionality in Hollywood. But it also highlights something else: Spencer got five times her salary. Damn, how much was she making before?! A manager’s salary at Macy’s?
I’m reminded of a 2014 interview Spencer gave to The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern. At that point she was joining the (since canceled) television series The Red Band Society. On why she was moving to television, Spencer said, “The roles I’m being offered in film are too small to sink your teeth into, and I thought it was time to be able to live with a character at inception and travel with her to fruition, and allow myself to evolve as an actress. I don’t get that opportunity in movies, where they ask me, ‘Will you play the distraught mom of this boy?’ I say, ‘Sure, but I’ve played it before.’ I wanted to play against-type.”
It’s why first-rate actresses like the aforementioned Henson and Viola Davis have moved to television with Empire and How to Get Away with Murder, respectively. It’s why Henson had to beg for her recent film Proud Mary to be promoted overseas.
“There are so few roles out there,” Spencer said. “And even if it is a film that could be led by a black actress, how many times is that film going to get funded? Let’s just be real. But it’s not just black people. It’s Asians, it’s Hispanic people if you’re not Salma Hayek. It’s hard. It’s hard to get films funded. It’s a business thing, and you have to change the mindset of people around here. The fact that Think Like A Man made so much money—over $100 million—but got very limited worldwide distribution is a problem. Will Smith would not be Worldwide Will Smith if he had not insisted on going worldwide and touring with his films. You have to build that audience for people and allow for it to happen.”
Spencer received her third Oscar nomination for her role in The Shape of Water, but she’s once again stuck playing the no-nonsense supporting character we saw in The Help (and frankly Hidden Figures, but at least that was a film with an entirely black cast), only this time she’s helping Sally Hawkins fuck a fish monster. Now that Spencer has gotten the respect she deserves in her salary, she ought to be getting the kind of roles that come with it.
Let Spencer fuck the damn fish monster herself.