When African Americans contribute to our own stereotype

Posted on January 13, 2012

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We’ve all done it at some point in life. Whether by accident or deliberate, conforming to a stereotype can happen to any of us.

When an African American does it, the effects can have lasting repercussions. Especially in a public forum. Just look at Herman Cain, and his absurd 9-9-9 plan. I cringed whenever he’d get a question during the Republican debates, because he’d refer back to his tax plan, never really giving any concrete details, simply parroting 9-9-9, as if he were on autopilot. Cain was more than willing to grin and tap dance for the Republican party. Now that he’s merely a footnote, the guy still thinks his opinion matters. I’m sure his press conference will be packed when he finally gives his endorsement.

The way we were. Cain on the Cover of Newsweek, prior to his downfall

 

I don’t think he gets it. After allegations of serial infidelity, none of the still remaining candidates may want to align themselves with the man.

So what did he get for his willingness to conform to a known stereotype?

Not much, from what I can tell. The woman who’s stood by his side for all these years has to be hurting, as well as his children. Sure, Mrs. Cain put on a brave face. But the revelation that her husband is a lothario appeared to be a serious breach of trust and character, and the sacred vow of marriage to remain faithful.

But while Cain may end up simply being a footnote when the history of the 2012 presidential campaign is mentioned, it may not be as easy to ignore the stereotypes on celluloid of The Help.

 

Because when I heard Viola Davis state this:

“I’m playing a maid, a black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, is a lot of pressure. You don’t play a maid. That is something  you don’t do. When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy. So I felt a lot of pressure. Absolutely. And then and of course pressure from the readers who all wanted Oprah to play the role. And saw her as being seventy years old and about two hundred and  fifty pounds or you know,  yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. But it’s like Tate says, if you work from that point of pressure and fear, your work is gonna crack. At some point you just have to leave it alone. And know that we have our own standard of excellence . . . “

Viola’s statement starts at about 8 minutes into the 10 minute audio clip

Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

 

 

Yes, she admitted her role was as a Mammy. But she also sounds tired. Before I transcribed the above quote, Viola was pouring her heart out to the interviewer. I wish the audio was better, but essentially Viola explains that while she may be viewed as a working actress, her parts haven’t always been as the star:

Viola Davis as Aibileen in film version of The Help and young actress as Mae Mobley

 

” . . . I work a total of 9 days maybe and that’s a lot. And people will say yeah but you were in that movie. So this was a chance for me to actually really develop a character, to be a part of it. And characters who are fully explored beyond taking care of babies and cooking in the kitchen. And they’re real roles for black women.”

You have to really listen to the interview. Because just as Viola gets going, and if this had been a seasoned interviewer (or one a bit more in tune with realizing Davis was speaking from a place celebrities rarely go, just like in The Help when the book veers from Minny almost revealing her abuse to Celia, then switching inexplicably to the highly absurd naked pervert scene. Just listen to what the interviewer does (I’m not blaming who ever was asking the questions. It’s just ironic that it happened the way it did).

Because when Viola talks about her mother, mentioning the abuse she endured:

 

“. . . My mom the other day said something, . . . told me about horrible abuses that she endured when she was younger but she skimmed over it, because we’re just used to it.”

 

The interviewer changes the subject like this:

(close to the end of the interview) “But the book is so beloved to so many people. When both of you took on this project, how were you when you took on this project. . .”

 

Do you realize how heartbreaking that is? And how in a weird way, it mirrors what went wrong both behind the book and the movie, and the reactions of some who loved the book so they couldnt see straight.

Viola Davis, perhaps after an enormous amount of interviews let her guard down. She talks about her six years of therapy and what blacks go through but don’t talk about.

Instead the inteviewer listens for a bit, then decides to dwell on Kathryn Stockett’s book and movie, which ironically has a premise of giving a “Voice” to rarely heard African American domestics. And Davis essentially gets shut down when she’s trying to use her “voice.”

 
There are a few other weird (no, more like creepy)  moments in the interview, like at the very end Tate Taylor states:

“Every time I start to write a screenplay, I keep making the characters female. They just have so much more going on with the female characters . . . They’re just infinitely more interesting to me. Every time I write a character I’m like oh, here come the breasts . . .”

Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

 

Listen, the audio wasn’t very good but I replayed it several times, and I could have sworn he said “breasts” but if I’m mistaken, please leave a message in the comments section. This is the same director/screenwriter that Emma Stone said requested and collected the menstrual cycles of his female stars.

 

“Emma said you kept a calendar of everyone’s hormonal states?

TT: Oh, yeah. Yeah, varying menstrual cycles and 110-degree weather in Mississippi could have been a time bomb, but it was not.”

The link to the interview referencing the menstrual cycles can be found here

You know, in the real world Taylor would be brought up before Human Resources for pulling something like that. And yet, somehow people are supposed to believe he could avoid stereotyping blacks just as well as he handles dealing with females (eye-roll).

And Taylor again mentions working on the screenplay prior to the book getting published:

“The greatest gift that could have ever happened was I got the rights when Kathryn had nothing. She had been turned down by her 60th person. So when I got the rights I thought I was adapting my friend’s un-publishable manuscript. So I went out and wrote it free of Hollywood or anybody saying this has to be in there, and this has to be in there and I just wrote it as a tribute of my friend’s book and making her happy and to Carol Lee and Demetrie and the women that I all knew. So no offense to the readers I just didn’t worry about it. Cause if I kept true to the book and told the truth that hopefully it would work out.”

Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

Yes, he kept true to a book that hadn’t been professionally edited yet. A book that he wouldn’t have known what the editor(s) wanted to omit or alter. But somehow he just knew, though other interviews have him stating he didn’t speak to Kathryn Stockett on the changes in the novel during all that time. Uh, yeah.

 

But I digress.

Back to Viola’s quote “When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy.”

It’s difficult to know whether Davis was being sarcastic without viewing the video attached to this piece. But this is the second quote that I’ve read where the author mentions she’s playing a Mammy. Yet she strikes me as conflicted when she states: 

“So this was a chance for me to actually really develop a character, to be a part of it. And characters who are fully explored  beyond taking care of babies and cooking in the kitchen. And they’re real roles for black women.”

 

But see, taking care of Mae Mobley and that big baby Skeeter, and joking with Minny in the kitchen are what take up most of Aibileen’s time. She has no true backstory, not like the other actress who shares co-lead screen time with her, Emma Stone.

“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one  of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not  take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?”  – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine

As a Mammy, Aibileen has no romantic interest, no “dates” which again, is unlike Emma Stone’s character Skeeter Phelan.

 

Skeeter, played by Emma Stone in the movie version of The Help

 

Unlike the unsavory tale in the novel explaining why Aibileen’s spouse is no longer with her, the movie doesn’t mention whether she’s a widow or was even married previously. That’s because while on screen Mammies can have a single child, they rarely have a male companion or a love life after that. And guess what? Both Aibileen and Constantine have one child. And live for the remainder of their “lonely” lives to give affection to Li’l Mae Mobley and Skeeter respectively.

Aibileen writing out her thoughts and living the life of an asexual hermit

 

Tate Taylor tries to explain it like this in an interview:

“Viola is just power. She’s just gonna bring such a truthfulness to this. The role of Aibileen, it be, it could go so awry.

It could be so cliché, you know the warm fuzzy big fat black woman that makes everything okay.  It would just really cheapen the character, really cheapen the story. Stories like that have been told. Viola is being very brave in showing the true other side of these ladies are where they’re at home. The loss, the poverty, the loneliness, how tired they are and then her ability to swallow it up for the family the next day.

Link: http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/the-help/interview-tate-taylor

 

 

Like Herman Cain, I don’t think Taylor truly gets it either. Having Viola Davis carry extra weight to play the character of the docile, asexual hermit Aibileen, having the character  live alone (like Constantine), only to get up each morning to play the “strong black woman” who smothers Mae Mobley with love, and risks her life to help get the other maids to talk to “Miss Skeeter”, so she can make everything okay, only she really has no life of her own except church and her job is the definition of a Mammy.

 

Young Actress playing Mae Mobley learning her "You is" isms, a contrived and condescending piece of dialogue meant to "inspire"

 

 

Guess this was the “truth” Taylor repeats in several interviews:

“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.”  – Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

Yes, the “truth” according to southerner. Excuse me, but far too many times the truth regarding the relationship between blacks and whites has rarely come out of a book or movie by a southerner, Stockett included. For example, a southerner by the name of DW Griffith directed The Birth of A Nation:

Birth of a Nation movie poster

 

 

Well, Griffith showed his “truth” regarding blacks and whites, note the black man enjoying fried chicken, which is a known mocking stereotype of African Americans:

Birth of a Nation, where a black legislator is eating a piece of fried chicken

 

 

And here’s the dialogue Tate Taylor created for his good friend Octavia Spencer to utter in The Help, that movie he claims is so “truthful”:

“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” and “Minny don’t burn no chicken” – dialogue from The Help

 

See the picture below? This is but one of the demeaning ads created during segregation to link African Americans with chicken.

It's Chicken Time! The stereotype of blacks loving chicken is resurrected in The Help

 

 

And here’s the “award  winning” short film that Taylor mentions during a few other interviews that some in Hollywood loved enough to hand him the reins direct The Help. Those with experience and a knowledge of the stereotypes to avoid when crafting black characters need not apply:

Tate Taylor's Chicken Party, starring Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and of all things, "fried chicken"

 

 

 

I really, truly want Hollywood to award this movie, yes, give The Help all the awards they covet. Because if “liberals” in Hollywood can be bamboozled into thinking they’re doing black people right by this crap of a film and book, they deserve to go down in history as being just as clueless as Stockett and Taylor and all the others who heaped praise on this travesty.

 

 

Based on the sensational-LY FLAWED bestseller, you mean. This was part of the trailer for The Help

 

Because as Stockett’s editor stated, the book was a “beautifully written story.”

That “beautifully written story  included unfounded, negative stereotypes like this:

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

And this:

That night after supper, me and the cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch and a half. He black. Blacker than me. (Pg 189, “Regal and wise” Aibileen compares her skin color to a roach, one of the filthiest insects on the planet, and her publisher is just fine with it)

 

 

And there’s also this, a stupid as hell conversation between Minny and Aibileen. Minny is the first speaker:

“You know Cocoa, the one Clyde ran off with?”

“Phhh. You know I never forget her.”

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”

“You saying people think I got the black magic?”

“I knew it worry you if I told you. They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” (Pg 24, Minny and Aibileen’s highly stereotypical, insulting, offensive, throwback Amos ‘n Andy dialogue from the novel)

 

 

Oh . . . Law.  They really done stepped in it. (That’s me, doing my imitation of Aibileen and Minny)

For those who don’t get it, during segregation the offensive myths about African Americans, which were excuses used to block integration and equality were as follows:

That blacks carry venereal diseases.

Note that Cocoa has a venereal disease.

See, it’s one thing to write a bigoted character and have that character state it. It’s another to claim to pay homage to your beloved maid and have a character “inspired” by her and your “good friend” utter demeaning stereotypical lines about their own culture. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Where and WTF were the editors doing on this book?

Now check out this scan from The Clarion-Ledger in 1963, where a woman representing the women’s group called United Front even states that little black kids carry venereal disease (’cause don’t cha know, she didn’t want her kids to go to school with blacks for this very reason).

A few women of Mississippi speak. Note Mrs. E A Copland believing that little black kids are afflicted with diseases and immorality

 

 

Back to the mistakes in the dialogue between Minny and Aibileen. The scene also resurrects another often spoken slur, that no matter if blacks were Christians, we’d revert back to the beliefs of our motherland, which apparently consisted of “black magic.”

Somehow, these devout Christians are too stupid to realize black magic and Christianity are opposite ideologies, as most Christians who read the bible would know. Except of course, these supposidely devout church goers. Maybe its because Stockett has Aibileen and Minny gossiping in church like a couple of mean girls, contrary to the movie. And so the highly offensive insinuation is that Aibileen has the power to call down a venereal disease on another woman, via God and the power of prayer. This conversation actually starts on Pg 23, where Minny lists examples of all the people Aibileen’s prayers have “healed.”

It’s also worth noting that when Stockett and her “good friend” Octavia Spencer went on tour to promote the novel, their road show included this scene. Stockett even voices Minny, faux black dialect and all (remember, she was brought up in a family that speaks “the King’s English” so she doesn’t believe she has a an accent of the southern variety, especially not one like her black characters).

 

 

Stockett voices Minny talking "spoilt cootchies" at the Tower Theatre during her book tour

Here’s a link to my post with the You Tube video: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/stockett-voices-minny/

Yes, this is all part of that “beautifully written novel”  by Kathryn Stockett, the very same author who claimed Medgar Evers was “bludgeoned” in his front yard in three known audio interviews. And in the novel also contained the error:

Error on Evers in the Paperback version of The Help

 

 

 

For more on the Evers error in The Help and Stockett’s other audio interview gaffes on civil rights icon Medgar Evers, see this post:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/medgar-evers-error-in-the-help/

 

 

At the end of both the novel and the movie of The Help, Aibileen walks off into the sunset crying. In her interview with Katie Couric, Stockett claimed the book ended on a hopeful note, as times soon changed for the better. There too, the author forgot that while the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, real change didn’t come to Jackson, Mississippi until many decades later. Stockett torpedoes her own rationale when she admits in the back of the novel how her grandparents still had Demetrie McLorn working under the rules of Jim Crow during the 70s and 80s, and until the day she died.  In a UK interview Stockett admits the only time she viewed Demetrie out of her white uniform was when she was in her casket. The author was sixteen at the time.

THE LOOK OF EMPOWERMENT. Viola as Aibileen showing just what Kathryn Stockett thought it will take to make a black woman break down during segregation. Being separated from Miss Skeeter and Mae Mobley

 

 

So when Viola Davis walks across the stage to pick up her award for the role, I know she’ll reference her family and thank Stockett and Tate Taylor. However I hope she remembers Abilene Cooper in her awards speech. Cooper’s the real life African American maid who, in my opinion, was the physical embodiment of the character of Aibileen Clark. Yet because she didn’t read the book in time her court case was thrown out (due to the statute of limitations, not on the merit of her law suit) and when she finally did, vehemently objected to pieces of her life and her likeness being used by Stockett and co. Cooper had her full story revealed by a UK paper.

The real deal Aibileen, a distraught Abileen Cooper after her lawsuit is tossed out

 

 

Maybe in a few years the US media will finally catch on. See Abilene Cooper’s sad tale here

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html

 

 

For more on the not so secret life of Mammies, see this post:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/u-just-might-be-a-mammy-if/

Next up, Octavia Spencer goes along with the “agreement.”

to be continued . . .

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