Good to Know: Moving beyond The Help

Posted on July 1, 2011


Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary in South Pacific

Yes, I have other interests besides hollering about The Help. And since I’ve been doing this for over a year, it’ll be time to move on. But before then . . .

If you haven’t already heard, we’ve put together #100voicesrespondtothehelp on 7/16. It’s an all day twitter conversation which we envision to be Part one of many such discussions. But in working towards this event I contacted, because this conversation is bigger than just how African Americans are portrayed on screen. While I can complain about how blacks are depicted, there are other minority groups who just aren’t on screen enough. And in 2011, that just shouldn’t be.

In doing research for 100 voices, I recalled an actress by the name of Juanita Hall. If you think Wentworth Miller and Vin Diesel being able to pass as white isn’t much of a stretch (I’ve loved Wentworth ever since seeing him in The Human Stain and Dinotopia, and Vin Diesel when I saw a piece on CBS about his independent documentary before he made it big) then Juanita’s history as an actress should be of interest. This versatile African American actress was a star on Broadway and films during segregation. Juanita was a ground breaker, because she was able to also play a Chinese American as well as a South Pacific Islander in two of Hollywood’s biggest musicals dealing with race.

Juanita Hall in Flower Drum Song

Premiere night, but no Juanita Hall. Wonder if she was allowed to walk the red carpet?

I’m in my third no, I think this is my fourth year of hard research on the Japanese culture. Why? because I’m working on an epic and I want to get it right. I also want to put more than two racial groups together in a historical plot that has action, romance and well, for this to be an ode to some of the actors and actresses who made an impression on me while growing up.

Like Juanita Hall. And James Shigeta.  

I first saw James Shigeta in Walk Like a Dragon, a 1960 film set in the old West. My dad was a big fan of Westerns and war movies, and he’d make us watch them. While he usually fell asleep, I absorbed much of what was on the screen. But what I was fascinated by even as a little kid were how different cultures were portrayed. James Shigeta was the go to guy in the 60s for many leading roles that called for a handsome Chinese or Japanese male.

James Shigeta







“Hawaiian-born James Shigeta was for a time the biggest Asian-American star the country had known for decades. His up-and-down career reflected America’s changing interest in films with Eastern themes, but when called upon he filled both A-movie starring roles and minor TV guest appearances with the same cool and classy style. An aspiring song-and-dance man early in his career, he had a series of romantic leading roles in the late fifties culminating in his most important one, the lead in Ross Hunter’s glitzy production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song (1961). Supporting parts followed, his last showy turn coming again from Ross Hunter, with star billing and his own production number in the ill-fated musical remake of Lost Horizon(1973). Along the way there have been many notable TV guest appearances showcasing Shigeta’s facility with both sympathetic and villainous roles. His status as the foremost Asian leading man of 20th century American film will endure undiminished by an erratic career.”


IMDb Mini Biography By: David Durrett





 Yes, in addition to all of the above, James was and still is a good actor. And FINE as hell. 












So here’s the question, why aren’t there more pairings of minorities TOGETHER  like this, in literature and film?








And also, is this the default image for Asian women on film, much like “happy and hefty” for black women (I don’t mean the blue contact lenses. But damn the women cast seem to always be petite and lovely) :






It’s good to know I’m not alone when ranting about erroneous depictions on screen:



A few other items of interest I’ve found will doing research for 100 voices, is this government sponsored period piece:









If you haven’t already, you need to get over to and check out the list of books by Octavia Butler that will be discussed all year round for their book club. On 7/16 100 voices will be pumping this up, because Ms. Butler is just that vital.







There’s no smooth way to transition from Octavia Butler to where do we go from here. But for the African American female in cinema, particularly the lack of diverse roles versus the ones we’ve carved out for ourselves is a subject I never tire of. There had never been, and there will probably never be a bad girl like Pam Grier.




Pam Grier




Pam Grier pose 2



Hell, even Pam did a take off on her old 70s flixs (though much more subdued) in Tarrantino’s Jackie Brown, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard

Jackie Brown poster, where Pam Grier once again brings out her bad self

Pam Grier’s television counterpart during the 1974-75 season was the sexy, assertive detective Christie Love, played by Teresa Graves.  Get Christie Love! was a high rated made for TV movie that was spun off into a TV show. Though it only lasted one season, the show and Graves made a huge impact. Graves was baptisted as a Jehovah’s Witness during the show’s short run, and stayed devoted to her religion until her untimely death in 20o2.  

Teresa Graves on the cover of TV Guide in 1974




What I remember most about the show were the outfits Graves wore, her larger than life persona in the part, her “You’re under arrest sugar” signature line after busting a bad guy in one of her many disguises. She was an undercover cop, which meant she got to play a variety of roles. In its time, this show and Graves part were groundbreaking.
Click image for larger view:

Christie Love TV Guide article






Graves is credited as being the first African American female to star in her own hour long drama

On the show and according to the NY times article on Graves “she played the first black woman hired by a large urban police department.”

The point of all this is to show once we were Women AND WARRIORS  
There’s  more for black actresses than just being the domestic or a slave. And after The Help (which I fear will spawn more “back in the day” revisionist films), I truly hope 100 voices can come up with some worthwhile suggestions.




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