Rising from a Hollywood Downgrade

Posted on August 6, 2011


Seems we’ve been downgraded by Hollywood.
After decades of progress, a movie will be released next week that returns African American actresses to the roles they’d once broken free from. But contrary to the contention that the issue dogging The Help movie is with Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Cecily Tyson playing maids, I want to remind readers that it’s The Help’s skewed DEPICTION of African Americans that’s the real problem, at least for me.
Imo they’re caricatures in the novel. And its not just the thick dialect they’re saddled with, but WHAT they say.
The conflict isn’t that domestics should not be a role African Americans play. But what and how they contribute to a story arc, their journey, their  inner will or conflicts, and viable goals of that character compared to whether it truly is a good role is where we differ.
Old Hollywood had numerous movies where both black males and females were domestics. But I’m at a loss to name one where I was moved by the character.

The Mammy Two shoes caricature from Tom and Jerry cartoon

I can’t recall a major motion picture where the role didn’t descend into stereotype. And by that I mean either the language, how the character behaved (loyal, docile, grumpy)  and where they fit into the storyline (simply to advance the main character’s goal). To that end, The Help feels like more of the same.
Some will say The Help is progress.
To which I say if that’s what you call progress, then we need to go back to the drawing board.
So while the PR on the film never addresses this, those who didn’t enjoy the novel’s take on black domestics (like me) probably will continue to criticize.  

Imitation of Life poster for both movie versions

We’re again the comforting sidekick, even though the film is titled The Help and should have been more focused on the maids.

1938 film Jezebel, where Theresa Harris plays a maid to Bette Davis' spoiled Southern Belle


Theresa Harris on the cover of Jet Magazine, 1952 image scan by Vieilles Annonces

Even the legendary Billie Holiday took her turn as a maid on film:

Billie Holiday as a maid in the Orson Welles backed film, New Orleans

For information on what I noticed were issues in the book, here’s an excerpt from a popular post on this blog: 

1. Denigration of several African American male characters.

2. Indefensible dialogue and scenes (naked pervert, Aibileen and the roach scene, etc.)

3. Error in the death of Medgar Evers by a primary character (Skeeter, Pg 277)

4. Elevation of the white males who practiced segregation while downgrading black males.

5. Aibileen’s indifference to Minny and her children’s abuse while worrying over Mae Mobley’s abuse

6. The bossy maid stereotype overshadowing a character who is a victim of domestic violence (Minny).

7. Stereotypical characters, both black and white.

8. Depiction of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 as ruled by women, specifically a twenty-four year old socialite named Hilly

9. Over the top descriptions of black characters from their dark skin tones to their physical attributes.

10. Black characters and white characters differenced by their supposed southern “dialect”.

11. A difference is made in the portrayal of the littlest characters in the novel, that being Mae Mobley and Kindra.

12. The marketing mis-steps over promoting the movie. Insensitive statements, questionable tie-ins, to WTF?  interview quotes.

I explore the issues listed above in a post titled Ten + Issues that Tarnish the Help

But I guess if I were to attempt to put a positive spin on all this, I’d say Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are in esteemed company. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance as the fiesty, loyal Mammy in Gone With The Wind. While she couldn’t walk down the same red carpet as her co-stars and its reported McDaniel was instructed to read a studio prepared acceptance speech, a win is still a win.
Before Hattie’s triumph, Louise Beavers performance as the long suffering and devoted maid Delilah in the 1934 film version of the novel Imitation of Life won raves. Her pious and at times “hilarious” role had her uttering lines like “I gives it to you, I make a present of it for you.” What she wanted to give away was her fortune from a secret family recipe. Afraid that her beloved Miss Bea would send her away, Delilah begs to stay on, even offering to work for free.

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life. What a "voice!"

  Here’s Louise holding her smile as directed by Bea, played by Claudette Colbert:

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


Delilah gives Bea a foot massage in Imitation of Life

Aibileen also has a scene in the book where she asks to stay on the maid’s stories, never realizing how much Skeeter actually needs her.
Still, moviegoers should be thrilled at the exploits of perky, spunky Skeeter Phelan

Skeeter, at 23 has her first boyfriend and broken heart.


Ken and Barbie, I mean Stuart and Skeeter have a lovers quarrel. "Things are fine around here, why do you want to go around starting trouble" Okay, he's cute,that I cannot deny

 At least in the film Skeeter finally has the confrontation with Hilly that the novel failed to provide:

Sandra Bullock laser cats stare number two by Emma Stone. Oh it's about to be on.


Scene from the movie The Help, featuring Emma Stone as Skeeter and Viola Davis as Aibileen

 I can’t help it, the way Emma Stone’s hair is crimped for the film makes me think of Shirley Temple.
Yeah, that’s it. Skeeter is like, why she’s the like the Shirley Temple of the 60s South:

Shirley Temple brings smiles during the Civil War. Here she is with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the iconic tap dancer

Yes, moveigoers will see Skeeter mobilize a group of maids to “rise” to their full potential. And after she saves the day, Skeeter’s off to work in New York City, where she’ll fit right in:

Cast of Mad Men, where Skeeter should feel right at home with their clothing line.

But we can’t remain in the past forever. Nostalgia for the past and its customs is great and all, only what comes next?
I was inspired today by Google’s nod to Lucy Ball’s 100th birthday. Lucy and Desi were the first interracial couple on TV during the 1950s.  I loved, loved LOVED this creative icon:

Google remembers Lucy and Desi

In anticipation of what comes next, while we must honor the past, we are not bound by it. We must move forward.
Just criticizing the novel The Help and perhaps the movie isn’t enough. I haven’t seen nor do I plan to see the movie.
I’m going by the in depth reviews I’ve read  around the web, some of which I’ve posted here.
But from out of all of this controversy, we have no where to go but up
So if you’re truly interested in literature by black authors, then check out Now Rise Books

Now Rise Books

Read the Blanche White  Mystery series by author Barbara Neely, featuring Blanche White, an African- American domestic worker-with-attitude, and who has a penchant for sleuthing.
There’s also author Bernice L. Mc Fadden’s latest novel Glorious.

Glorious is set against the backdrops of the Jim Crow South, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights era. Blending the truth of American history with the fruits of Bernice L. McFadden’s rich imagination, this is the story of Easter Venetta Bartlett, a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin, and revival offers a candid portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty.

Bernice’s novel “Sugar” was published around the same time Stockett’s The Help, yet her novel did not benefit from the vast resources of the major publisher they both shared.
You can read about Bernice’s article on how publishing has failed African American authors here.
There are also period pieces in fiction like Hilary Jordan’s Mudbound, Francine Thomas Howard’s Page from a Tennessee Journal, Mary Glickman’s Home in The Morning (which is soon to be a feature film) and riveting non-fiction such as Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Danielle McGuire’s At The Dark End of The Street.
And the complete works of black movie historian Donald Bogle, the premier voice on black Hollywood is a must. Bogle has a book out on Ethel Waters that’s on my next to be read list.
It’s also been reported that Viola Davis has inked an agreement with HBO. Good for her.
You can review more about the deal here.
As for me, I’ll be working on a new venture also.

See, it’s one thing to criticize. It’s another to only criticize and do nothing.
I’ve been bitchin’ for a year, until  finally, the word has gotten out regarding the issues with Stockett’s novel.
But talk is cheap.
 Listen, I don’t claim to be a writer. But I’m going to try.
Because if it all starts with the written word, and since it seems ideas are hard to come by for projects which have diverse characters such as Asian, African, African American, Hispanic, bi-racial, hearing impaired, Maori, Native American . . .
Damn it, I’m going to try. That’s all I can do. But I’ll need your help to become a better writer.
I’d like my trek into writing to be interactive. There’s no sense not to utilize the technology at hand to find out BEFORE you publish something what you’d f’d up on.
Visit my new site. it’s not completely up yet, but you can still see what I have so far at the end of this post. I researched and put the apps that I wanted on it, so the cost was minimal.
Read. And Vote. Above all let me know what I’m doing wrong.
I’m a big girl, I can take it.
I’m no August Wilson, but I love his work. And I want to explore the black experience using strong African American male protagonists.
I’m no Octavia Butler, but I plan to offer scifi and fantasy featuring minority characters.
I’m no LA Banks, but I’ll give paranormal romance a shot.
I’ll have writers of all races as my inspiration.
I’m still searching for my “voice” so I’ll post free reads as I work all this out.
And I’ll let you know now that there will be no minorities without backstories, so if you don’t care for multicultural pairings, then sorry, my offerings won’t be to your liking.
The release dates will change (as in having to be pushed back, because I work fulltime) but change is a part of life.
And I’m a life long learner. So . . .
Posted in: Blog