SAG awards The Help, continuing Hollywood’s love of black women as Mammies

Posted on January 30, 2012

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In a move that should come as no surprise, SAG patted itself on the back (SAG stands for Screen Actor’s Guild) and awarded The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s ode to how wonderful life was when black women were domestics AKA surrogate mothers AKA Mammies.

The Help earns top honor At SAG Awards 

 

Look for The Help musical, now that the movie and book returns the nostagia of Southern Traditions

Both Mammie stereotypes were rewarded this night, so Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis should be very proud of their efforts to help the antebellum south rise again.

 

Since minorities are woefully misrepresented in film and television anyway, it should be pointed out that the bulk of the votes came from non-minorities who wouldn’t recognize a stereotype of a black person if it came up and bit them.

 

As previously mentioned on this site, I’ve had this message up for months on the front page:

 

In 2012, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are nominated and win for their performances as maids in the film The Help as MAMMYHOOD PREVAILS

To quote Charlie Sheen: "Winning"

 

It’s important that this whole absurd scenario play itself out. The spotlight must shine on Stockett’s work in order for eyes to be opened.

So while Hollywood may now believe it can point to The Help as their token attempt at atonement, those who reward Stockett’s work without knowing or even caring about the behind the scenes errors, or how the book and movie does more harm than good to the memory of those hard working, fearless African American maids, have in-turn condoned two polarizing stereotypes.

What Hollywood is rewarding is the idea of the black mammy. Not the admirable maid.

That two talented African American thespians played their stereotypes well isn’t the point.  And I’m editing this post to add that at least one of them publicly stated she knew she was playing a Mammy. Here’s a previous post of mine with an audio link to Viola Davis admitting it:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/contributing-to-our-own-stereotype/

 

To quote Davis from that You Tube audio piece: “I’m essentially playing a Mammy.” And that’s not the only time Davis mentions the role of Aibileen is a Mammy. See the post for an additional quote from Esssence magazine as Davis explains her rationale for taking the role.

Octavia Spencer signed on at the beginning, for as Kathryn Stockett admitted in a very early interview in December of 2009 “That was just the agreement”

Dapito: And is there a movie version coming out of The Help? Did I hear that right?

Stockett: The movie rights have been sold to a fellow Mississippian Tate Taylor (inaudible) Green and I’m just so lucky that the book is in the hands of people, not only Mississippians but friends of mine from Jackson. They’re two filmmakers based in Los Angeles.

Dapito: Oh I can’t wait. Do you think they will cast Octavia and some of the other narrators?

Stockett: I think Octavia will be the part of Minny because ah . . (pause and laughter) you know, that was just the agreement. It wasn’t that hard of, it you know, there was no pulling hair on that one. She’s such a natural.”

Link: An Interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of ‘The Help’ Narrated by Diana Dapito

 

The beloved black mammy is a trope as tired and overused as the “hot blooded latino”  the “blonde bimbo” as well as the “bratty teen.”

Yet Hollywood’s message seems to be that they aren’t in on the joke. Did they miss the memo that Mammies went out with segregation, and the point isn’t to have black actors resurrect these roles to induce mirth or misery?

What better litmus test than to ask whether these characters can be identified with?

The answer is usually to pawn them off by saying they must represent “grandparents” or “mothers” or someone older.

Yet there are real life testimonials from around the internet of those who survived segregation and who don’t recognize Stockett’s characters, which were created simply for humor. In short, Stockett approached the time period as one that should induce laughter.

Even more surprising is how Aibileen and Minny, and even Constantine have some African Americans claiming that’s how it was for their forefathers and mothers.

I doubt if their grandparents were able to tell someone white to “Eat my shit!” while admitting they’d just fed them a pie laced with feces and lived to tell about it. Even today walking away intact would be far-fetched.

Those of us who remember the time period know that what Stockett created, and what Hollywood now celebrates are simply the loyal Mammies of old dressed up for a new generation.

So tonight, raise a toast to having both Delilah from Imitation of Life (Aibileen) and Mammy from Gone With The Wind (Minny) in the same movie. Oh, and add in Ethel Waters, (Constantine) because that’s the other character trope Stockett used. Realizing that putting in the overused caricature of the tragic mulatto would have been way too much, Lulabelle changed colors and was re-cast as a brown African American, not the “pale as snow” tragic mulatto in the book (in yet another literary trope crammed into the novel) and renamed Rachel.

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

If this is the first post you’re reading on this site, I encourage you to take a look at other blog posts on here which go more in depth on where and how Stockett erred and insulted, and others profited from a book that contained offensive depictions and dialogue of the black community dressed up as amusing anecdotes.

Link: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/ten-issues-that-tarnish-the-help/

 

 

And let me repeat so that this is made clear. While the author did a reasonable job of showing the harshness of time period, that is not the issue.

What is at issue are two well know caricatures of black women, specifically those considered domestics, that were resurrected by the book and the movie, even though these depictions have been a source of mockery and misuse for years by some in the very culture that now applauds them.

And that same community never once thought to question:

Why is Aibileen alone in the film as well as the novel? Why does she default into the stereotype of the black woman as single parent, even though this was a time period where African American women and men faced segregation together, and not apart?

 

Aibileen writing out her thoughts and living the life of an asexual hermit. My bad. That's SAG award winning, asexual beloved Mammy hermit.

 

 

Why was Minny picked to play the chicken loving buffoon? Segregated Hollywood is full of the same examples of blacks being used in a similar capacity.

 

Celia gives Minny a hug, which is supposed to make moviegoers chuckle and go "Awww, don't worry, we'll give you a Golden Globe and SAG for this."

 

 

Why did the novel and movie demean the black male, while rehabilitating the white southern male?

 

"A Handsome Good Ole Boy" You've got to be kidding. This is how the movie was marketed overseas. It's the "Twilight" effect

 

 

The movie wound up cutting out mention of Aibileen’s philandering husband and Constantine’s absentee lover. But that’s because Kathryn Stockett’s treatment of of the black male in her novel was so offensive, that these characters couldn’t be mentioned in the film. And the studio knew this.

Clyde, Aibileen’s spouse has a degrading storyline where he runs off with another woman (Cocoa) who comes down with a venereal disease (spoilt cootchie scene, Pg 23-24). Aibileen and Minny are written as being so backwards that they think Aibileen has somehow accomplished the feat of calling down a venereal disease via the power of prayer.

Stockett, who admits in the back of her novel that her grandparents brought her up in a home which practiced segregation to the letter (Stockett was born in 1969. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964) and managed to get those who proclaim themselves to be liberals (but not able to realize that much of the novel and now the movie is cringe worthy and patronizing) to show just how being “liberal”  for some can mean being hopelessly clueless and proud of it.

Case in point. Would a movie on Jewish domestics under a Nazi household have a funny, fat Jewish maid who made jokes which used cultural references that demeaned?

Yet The Help  (film) is being lauded, when it contains Minny reciting stereotypical dialogue like this:

“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life.” and “Minny don’t burn no chicken.”

But SAG can’t, and shouldn’t shoulder all the blame.

Something tells me those voting thought they were doing a good thing. And that with so few movies showing African American women on screen, even a stereotype was better than nothing.

A respected organization like The NAACP could (and should) have at least entered into a dialogue (or at least had someone read the novel) once educators like Melissa Harris Perry, Martha Southgate and The National Association of Black Women Historians publicly spoke out, instead of  rubber stamping the film for its own awards.

The National Association of Black Women Historians issued a smack down to both the novel and the film version of The Help:

 

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers”

Their statement is on the ABWH website: http://www.abwh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2:open-statement-the-help&catid=1:latest-news

 

And also in the form of a PDF: http://www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf

The NAACP risks validating a screenwriter (The NAACP Image awards has nominated Tate Taylor as best director and screenwriter for The Help) who came up with the stereotypical chicken dialogue for Minny. And Taylor has  more than his share of WTF quotes referencing African Americans and our history. Read all about Tate Taylor’s “That’s worse than seeing a lynching” quote here

And how dismissive Taylor is of black educators entrusted with retaining our history in this interview quote

So is Minny’s obsessive love of chicken a not so subtle wink to films like The Birth of a Nation:

 

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

 

 

Or ads produced during segregation which used African Americans for mockery, and featured (you guessed it) chicken:

 

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

 

 

Another Tate Taylor production, the film that gave him the “credibility” to write the screenplay for The Help

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

 

 

More recently both Taylor and Stockett have made additional verbal gaffes. Here Taylor insensitively crows over having the Medgar Evers assassination inserted into the fictional maid 4 mammies story, The Help:

 Taylor: What I really, really loved about the Medgar Evers storyline and backdrop was that he was in their neighborhood. While they were doing this clandestine project, this Civil Rights leader who’s their neighbor gets murdered, and their characters are wondering, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/01/12/the-help-an-oral-history-with-viola-davis-octavia-spencer.html

 

 

What he “really, really loved about the Medgar Evers storyline” WTF?

Does he not realize this was a real person, a husband, a father, a civil rights icon, and not just a plot device?  Evers was assassinated due to bigotry and ignorance.

Stockett’s characters are just that. CHARACTERS. And ones who embody  the ever present Mammy Myth in America.

 

 

And here’s Stockett and producer Chris Columbus in the same interview, note what they state about the poop pie. It’s all so funny to them, when real African Americans were murdered, assaulted and raped for far less:

 

Octavia: Oh my god! [Laughs] People always ask me if we were laughing hysterically through that scene, but I always say no, because it was never a funny thing for Minny. She always knew the danger. We never played the comedy of it; the comedy is knowing when it’s revealed.

Stockett: Tate was such a prankster! He still is. The horrible things he did to the people he even loved, or in high school, to me—he told me at one point I had to stop telling people what he used to do. [Laughs] For me, it was, “What was the worst thing you could do to Hilly Holbrook?” And it was her having the image in her own mind that she had eaten Negro shit. It’s kind of corny, the whole concept, but what saved that scene was Sissy Spacek.

Chris Columbus: “Run, Hilly Minny, run!” was a completely improvised line. People were falling down behind the monitor because we had no idea how Sissy was going to react. But the way that scene is shot, it’s a textbook scene of how to direct a comedic moment.

Octavia: And I did the “eat my shit” line about five or six times. That was the fun part!

Stockett: It’s fucking hysterical!

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/01/12/the-help-an-oral-history-with-viola-davis-octavia-spencer.html

 

 

And this is what Hollywood and publishing chose to celebrate. Individuals with frat boy mentalities who wouldn’t dare demean or use their own cultures in the way they maligned African Americans, because to quote Stockett, “it’s fucking hysterical!”

The Lynching of Laura Nelson

The littlest victim of Segregation

I AM A MAN. The march meant to have America recognize that fact

 

 

One more thing. While Hollywood currently lauds Stockett’s motley crew, there’s a real maid named Abilene Cooper who works for the author’s brother and alleges Stockett used pieces of her life and her name for The Help. It’s not a pretty story, and Cooper’s account has a ring of truth to it, especially since Stockett admitted watching Octavia Spencer and incorporating her mannerisms into the character of loud mouthed Minny, as well as deceased family maid Mrs. Demetrie McLorn for the character of Constantine, and Aibileen Clark. Cooper’s lawsuit was tossed, not on the merits of the case, but because the statute of limitations had run out.

 

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

 

 

Read more of Cooper’s account here

Next up: Real maids vs The Great Pretenders

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