Cross your fingers and hold your breath. It’s awards season, and Hollywood is already sizing up who is going to win the big prize–the coveted Oscar.
Unfortunately, the only African American contenders for an Oscar win in the actress categories are Viola Davis in the Best Actress category and Octavia Spencer in the Best Supporting Actress category for the Dreamworks film “The Help.”
There are a number of African Americans who have not seen the movie, will not see the movie, and are very upset that once again Blacks, and in particular Black women, are seen and being honored in what is perceived as a negative light. And to make matters worse, it’s told from a White person’s point of view.
The mere title “The Help” enrages some Blacks. And looking at Hollywood history, when it comes to portraying Black women on film, some critics point out that this is the image White America is most comfortable with when it comes to Black women.
In 1934, Louise Beavers starred in “Imitation of Life” opposite Claudette Colbert. Beavers’ character (Aunt Delilah) had a daughter played by Fredi Washington who hated living in the Black world because she could easily pass for white.
Beavers’ character (Aunt Delilah) was devoted to Colbert’s character and even gave her the family recipe for pancakes to help with Colbert’s struggling business. You guessed it, the company was a huge success, made Colbert’s character rich, but Aunt Delilah was happy being her maid. I was outraged, but I had to remember that was 1934.
According to “Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures” by Gary Null, Black journalists were joined by White film critics in denouncing the film for its handling of racial issues. The writers felt the real story was the ‘tragic mulatta” character not the submissive, old-fashion Negro, who as the saying goes ‘knows her place.’
Indeed Black journalists had a lot to say about this film. Sterling Brown, a professor of the history of the theater at Howard University and a film critic for the magazine Opportunity called Beavers character’s attitude ludicrous and unjust, referring to the scene where Aunt Delilah says she wants no share of the profits of their jointly-owned pancake venture.
Perhaps the best known maid of the cinema was the character ‘Mammy’ from the classic (1939) film “Gone with the Wind.”
Veteran actress Hattie McDaniel became the first Black performer to win an Oscar as a result of this role. McDaniel walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the outspoken, slave who kept a plantation and the White family together before, during and after the Civil War.
To put it bluntly, McDaniel caught hell for her outstanding performance. The outcry was so strong that the Armed Forces stopped showing the film “Gone with the Wind” to American soldiers.
According to the book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams,” by Donald Bogle, as the 1940s progressed, the servant roles McDaniel and other African American performers had so frequently played were subjected to increasingly strong criticism by groups such as the NAACP.
McDaniel’s “Gone with the Wind” co-star, Ann Rutherford, recalled how McDaniel thought some of her friends looked down on her for playing a maid. But McDaniel said, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
The feature film directed by actress Debbie Allen, “Stomping at the Savoy,” illustrated that point and gave me another look at what it was like to be a domestic in the 1940s. This 1992 television movie featured Vanessa Williams, Jasmine Guy, and Vanessa Bell Calloway as “the help” while Lynn Whitfield’s character decided she’d rather stab her friends in the back than be a domestic.
“Stomping at the Savoy” showed another aspect of the challenges that “the help” experienced–mainly horny White men and horny teenage boys. Guy’s character had to fight her young suitor off on a regular.
Fast-forward to 2011, and it looks like we’re having that same discussion again. Indeed, the lack of roles for Black women in films is heartbreaking. And the films that are made featuring African American women are apparently not considered Oscar worthy, a standard by which all films and performances are judged.
Take Tyler Perry’s 2010 “For Colored Girls,” which featured some of today’s top Black actresses–it didn’t even get a wink last year. Yes, it had some flaws, but you can’t deny the superb acting from Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose and Thandie Newton.
Which brings us to the “The Help.” It is my hope and prayer that both of these women walk away with an Oscar. They both took a controversial subject and delivered performances that are indeed Oscar worthy.
Hollywood films are about telling stories; some we’re comfortable with, some we’re not. “The Help” is the story of Black American mothers and grandmothers who worked in the White woman’s house cooking, cleaning and caring for that woman’s children in order to feed and keep a roof over the heads of her own children. Don’t you think their stories need to be told?
It would have been lovely for this film to have been written by a Black writer, but what’s done is done. Thank goodness for the talents of Davis and Spencer. They made it work for them, and in turn make it work for us.
Gail can be reached at email@example.com.