Playing a maid and giving “the f-ing performance of her life”

Posted on August 7, 2011

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That’s a partial quote from Octavia Spencer, from this week’s EW (Entertainment Weekly) Magazine

“However beloved Stockett’s book may be, the subject of race — and of Hollywood’s complicated history with it — still hits a raw nerve in many circles. In fact, the film’s stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer often find themselves in the strange and unsettling position of having to defend their decision to play Aibileen and Minny, the proud maids at the heart of Stockett’s novel. “That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” Davis says in a no-holds-barred interview. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” Spencer is even more emphatic. “It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—ing performance of her life.’ “

EW Cover. I can't recall the last time I saw two African Americans on their cover

 

Link: http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/08/04/the-help-this-weeks-cover/

Sigh. And here I thought they were doing quite well with their interviews. Until this one.

Listen, if you’re black in America you play the fuckin’ greatest performance of your life each and every damn day. Hell, if you’re any minority in this country, like a white woman trying to hold it down with one job and kids and your man is out of work, you’re playing the greatest performance of your life each day.

Yes, even though the country is in dire financial straits, people are out of work (some of the hardest hit are minorities) it doesn’t figure that to part with hard earned money the picture would have to be something folks would like to SEE. I mean, call me crazy but a Dramedy on how a young white woman had to push a group of maids to their full “potential” is more like Blind Side Jr.

So excuse me if I criticize the film, and don’t care to see the dang thing. Not because two beautiful, brown African American females are portraying maids.

I just didn’t like the book. And I won’t go see the movie.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a smash hit. Even with the tasteless tie in with HSN

Pots by Emeril “inspired” by The Help movie.

Emeril's Pots and pans inspired by The Help

 
 
 
 
 
 
Since Skeeter, Elizabeth, Hilly, or none of the other southern belles in the book really knew their own kitchen, it’s safe to say this tie in is all about cooking like Minny, dressing like Hilly and smelling like . . .Magnolias
 
 
 

HSN's "Smell like a Southern Magnolia Belle" sale

 

Very bad form. Just not cool when dealing with segregation and how black women were tethered to southern kitchens for hours on end, and their kids had to step in and cook. From an actual domestic’s mouth:

“It is not only the long hours, the small pay, and the lack of privacy – we often have to share a room with the children – that we maids find hardest to bear. It is being treated most of the time as though we are completely lacking in human dignity and self- respect. During my first year at this work I was continually hopeful. But now I know that when I enter that service elevator I should park my self-respect along with the garbage that clutters it. Self- respect is a luxury I cannot retain and still hold my job.”

You can read more about Naomi Ward’s first person account here:

And please allow me paraphrase something Hattie McDaniel once said. Because “Playing a maid is a hell of a lot better than  actually having to be one.” That job is and was no joke during segregation.

Maid cleaning a fireplace

 
 
 

Unidentified Maid feeding a child

 
 
 
 

Mammy and child

 
 
 
Another real life testimonial from a maid:
 
“I frequently work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I am compelled to by my contract, which is oral only, to sleep in the house. I am allowed to go home to my own children, the oldest of whom is a girl of 18 years, only once in two weeks, every other Sunday afternoon–even then I’m not permitted to stay all night. I not only have to nurse a little white child, now eleven months old, but I have to act as playmate, or “handy-andy,” not to say governess, to three other children in the house, the oldest of whom is only nine years of age. I wash and dress the baby two or three times each day; I give it its meals, mainly from a bottle; I have to put it to bed each night; and, in addition, I have to get up and attend to its every call between midnight and morning. If the baby falls to sleep during the day, as it has been trained to do every day about eleven o’clock, I am not permitted to rest.
 
It’s “Mammy, do this,” or “Mammy, do that,” or “Mammy, do the other,” from my mistress, all the time. So it is not strange to see “Mammy” watering the lawn with the garden hose, sweeping the sidewalk, mopping the porch and halls, mopping the porch and halls, helping the cook, or darning stockings. Not only so, but I have to put the other three children to bed each night as well as the baby, and I have to wash them and dress them each morning. I don’t know what it is to go to church; I don’t know what it is to go to a lecture or entertainment of anything of the kind; I live a treadmill life; and I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets when I am out with the children, or when my children come to the “yard” to see me, which isn’t often, because my white folks don’t like to see their servants’ children hanging around their premises.
 
You might as well say that I’m on duty all the time–from sunrise to sunrise, every day in the week. I am the slave, body and soul, of this family. And what do I get for this work–this lifetime bondage? The pitiful sum of ten dollars a month!”
 
 
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

 
Excerpt from A Negro Nurse More Slavery at the South.
Read more of this first person account here
 
 
 
After reading these real life accounts, theres no way putting a comedic spin on this made sense. Especially since blacks were supposed to provide comedic relief all during segregation. This is the type of shit that happens when a writer refuses to do the needed research on a culture they don’t know anything about. Using the old “I’ve been around a few black people so I know them” is as bad as anything I’ve heard. So what’s next? You overhear a group of Hispanics and think oh yeah, I can write about having a Hispanic maid, I mean how hard can it be? I’ll just throw in a bunch of broken Spanish and I should be good to go.
 

And I mean, WTF is up with the people behind the movie and their off beat quotes? Here’s one from Tate Taylor, dropping it like he’s some kind of writer covering the urban beat:

“My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African-American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it,” said Taylor.

LA Times interview By NICOLE SPERLING

Reprinted by http://www.kansascity.com/2011/08/05/3058228/the-help-actresses-talk-roles.html

 

Oh my heavens. What? WHAT? Where does “Street cred” even enter the conversation? Wait, don’t tell me, appealing to African Americans means using terms on our “level.” Because he sure wouldn’t have used “street cred” in trying to “represent” a group of Mormons.

No wonder he couldn’t point out to his childhood pal Kathryn Stockett where her depictions of African Americans veered into stereotype. Hell, he kinda sounds just like her.

You’ve got a producer of the movie posting on twitter hashtag #WhenBlackPeopleGetPaid They go see The Help (in all fairness, the twitter message has been deleted and a heartfelt, personal apology was issued I must add)

The Help Tweet with name blocked

 

 

Tate Taylor giving another cringe worthy quote about of all things, fried chicken:

 “About 20 minutes into the movie, you’re craving fried chicken,” says director Tate Taylor. That movie is The Help, the new film based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel . . .”

Article link: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/the-help-southern-food

Obviously Taylor is unaware of how African Americans were ridiculed in advertisments during segregation, about eating fried chicken:

Children weren't immune to mockery. This GE ad uses the stereotype of blacks and fried chicken

Or maybe he is, since he wrote and directed a movie about the fowl in a comedy:

Tate Taylor's Chicken Party

 

 

A couple more ads featuring blacks and chicken:

1950s bigoted advertising, for of all things, blacks and fried chicken

 

 

I't's Chicken Time! 1950s bigoted advertising, for of all things, blacks and fried chicken

More information on the misteps behind the scenes can be found here

 

“Spencer: There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of us playing maids without knowing anything about the story. Not knowing how proactive these women are in their community and how they are propagating change.

Davis: They don’t care. It’s the fact that we are playing maids. It’s the image and the message more so than the execution.

Did that give you pause before signing on?

Davis: Yes.”

Link: http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/08/04/the-help-this-weeks-cover/

 

 

I’d assumed (but you know what they say about those who assume) they knew all about the role they were getting into. In fact I could have sworn I’d seen Spencer advocating for the book and the part of Minny, and I quote “Minny was my mother”

Oh yes, here it is:

Click image for larger view

Octavia Spencer speaks up for The Help

 

 

And who, pray tell is “They?”

“They don’t care. It’s the fact that we are playing maids. It’s the image and the message more so than the execution.” – Viola Davis EW quote

Actually, I beg to differ. It’s the image, the message and the execution. But I don’t think Viola has any thing to worry about. At least I didn’t before this interview.

Segregation didn’t just pop up in the 60s when Stockett decided to write about it. Legalized oppression existed for well over a century.

Maid at the door, silent and almost invisible. Hey, how come she's not laughing and grinning like Minny and Aibileen?

 

Aibileen and Minny having a ball in the kitchen, as the whitewashing of segregation via films returns

 
 
 
 

Delilah from Imitation of Life, played by Louise Beavers grinning in the kitchen

 

And though the movie isn’t the book,  the film  never would have gotten bankrolled without the book. And quite frankly, the book sucked big time (a family member’s quote, not mine). But still, many loved it so. Only in America can a rich white woman pretend to channel a poor black maid.  Gotta love the irony when some readers laud a stereotype as being “authentic.”

Based on the sensational-LY FLAWED bestseller

At its worst, Aibileen was a sniveling, cowering Uncle Tom/Mammy who played favorites based on race, crowing about another maid having “good hair, no naps” (Yule May), ignoring the abuse her best friend’s children witness and experience daily. A good example is Leroy waking up to rage at Benny, with Stockett writing Aibileen as too chicken shit to stay and help the boy. If that had been Mae Mobley she would have thrown herself in the line of fire.

Aibileen doesn’t cuddle or even speak to Minny’s youngest daughter Kindra in the book, the only scenes they have are when Aibileen hears her crying in the background when she’s talking to Minny (Minny has just been let go as Miss Walters maid by Hilly) when Medgar Evers is assassinated and Aibileen goes over Minny’s house (she doesn’t offer to coddle any of Minny’s kids) and when she turns judgmental, observing the now seven year old banging pans with this internal dialogue Kindra- she seven now-she sass-walk her way to the stove, with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air (Aibileen observing Kindra, Pg 396)

At its best, Aibileen’s scenes where she describes Mae Mobley’s affection for her is where Stockett’s writing shines. In a close second are the much too short scenes of grief Aibileen expresses over the loss of her only son.

The story could have done without the Uncle Remus type dialogue for Aibileen and her self loathing about her own skin color, as well as the denegration of the African American male (Stockett stepped over “the line” with her depiction of Leroy, Clyde, Connor and Minny’s father). Yet she practically canonized the white males who benefited from segregation, telling the reader “he’s is a good man” (Stuart) or “he’s an honest man” (her dad, Carlton Phelan) and having it appear that when Senator Stoolie Whitworth blocked James Meredith at Ole Miss, he was just doing the will of his constiuents. Yes, poor Stoolie was a politician who was trapped. He had to appear to be a staunch segregationist, but in his heart he was really a liberal.

And hey, is Aibileen still asexual and living alone in the film? Then why? That was something they definitely should have changed (or at the very least they could have made her a widow).

And Constantine, is she too still living like a hermit in the film, but able to exist on loving Skeeter and the rest of the Phelan family?

Cicely Tyson as Constantine in film version of The Help, coddling a young Skeeter

 

And is Leroy still an abusive man? Because in the novel he was pathetic and vile. Yes, the black males paired with the primary maids were negatively labeled with terms like “no account” and “drunk” and ” no good” as well as being absentee baby daddies. But I’m sure the movie corrected all of that.

Or either just left it out.

So if you’ve seen the film, please leave me a comment on some of my questions. I’ll be interested to know if the movie “fixed” all this.

Oh yeah, its nice to hear the movie  has Aibileen and Minny embracing the civil rights movement and perhaps suporting it by Aibileen putting the college aged and teen non-violent  protestors in her prayer book,  just like she does with Mae Mobley. I mean, it’s the least she can do since she ignored them in the novel. I’m sure the movie fixed this.

I’ll find out on Wednesday when more reviews come in whether Minny disparages the church members for trying to join the Freedom movement, like she did in the book.

If they kept the scene where Minny runs after the naked pervert jacking off and calling her a “fat black nigger” I’ll be surprised.

But then, you never know. It could be as hilarious in the theater as some believed it was in the book to read about Minny chasing after the guy and screaming “I got me a knife!”

Yes, these are two wonderful roles that apparently needed no alterations.

And its swell that the book is still selling, with demeaning dialogue  like “You saying people think I got the black magic?” (Aibileen, Pg 24)

Yes, the whole “cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster” will have them doubling over with laughter in the theater, as both maids discuss Aibileen’s sacred ability through the power of prayer, to call down a venereal disease on her rival Cocoa. Riveting, highly intelligent, regal stuff on pages 23 and 24. 

Another stellar piece of dialogue from the novel:

“I was in attic, looking down at the farm,” I tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.”

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) – Constantine’s reply to Skeeter

 

 

But wait, there’s more:

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

 

Aibileen and Minny in one of their many, frankly dumb sounding conversations:

“You gone accuse me of a philosophizing.”

“Go ahead,” I say. “I ain’t afraid of no philosophy.” (Pg 311, Minny and Aibileen discuss Celia not seeing the “lines” between black and white)

Aibileen can say “philosophy” “congealed salad” “parliamentary” “conjugation””motorized rotunda” and “domesticized feline” yet can’t stop using “pneumonia” for “ammonia”. Yeah righhhhtttt.

 

 

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

Uh, no dear. This was how “Plenty of black men” ended up leaving their loved ones during segregation. And it wasn’t by choice.

A lynching in Marion, Indiana 1930. The ultimate price black men paid during segregation

 

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen does a color swatch test with a cockroach. Thankfully, the roach wins. (Pg 189)

 

Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter

 

The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told,  you’ll never get hired The blacker the better.(Pg 257) Skeeter

 

Minny’s husband comments on her pregnancy (this zinger comes after having five other children) “You don’t get tired. Not till the tenth month.” Leroy (Pg 406)

“Martin Luther King dear. He just announced a march on D.C. and invited every Negro in America to join him. Every white person, for that matter. This many Negro and white people haven’t worked together since Gone With the Wind.” (Pg 159) – Elaine Stein, Skeeter’s editor for her book on the Help.

 

And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen

 

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Aibileen, Pg 91)

To be continued . . .

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