I’ve been reminded that I never did a post on Minny’s various lines in her ode to fried chicken. While the book has Minny salivating over okra and pork chops hot out of the pan, here’s what Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer got to utter on film about chicken:
“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny Jackson, from the movie The Help
“Minny don’t burn no chicken.” – Minny Jackson, from the movie The Help
“Eat my shit!” – Minny Jackson, from the movie The Help
It just so happens that I’m watching Red Tails and frying chicken as I compose this post. I also plan on watching Lifetime’s Liz and Dick tonight. Unfortunately for me, chicken doesn’t appear to be the magic bullet Minny claims it is in the book or the movie. Here’s the actual line from the book:
“Frying chicken always makes me feel a little better about life. I almost forget I’m working for a drunk.” Minny, Pg 224 of the novel, speaking about Celia Foote.
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While Aibileen was the docile, loyal caretaker Mammy throughout the book, Minny was the kitchen Mammy who turned into a gruff caretaker of sorts for the infantile bride Celia Foote. Minny and Celia provided most of the comedy in the novel and the film:
Both parts called for revisiting the tired Hollywood stereotype of how black maids were cast to look, which is dark in complexion and carrying weight. During the heyday of segregation items featuring the black female as an idealized version of the antebellum Mammy domestic were mass produced using the heavy set, darker hued caricature as a model:
For the character of Minny, bossiness is a prevailing personality trait.
Even cartoons got in the act of using this image:
Using this depiction as a guide, unlike many of the white stars of the film, neither of the two Oscar nominated black actresses got billed as “attractive” or “pretty” by the studio promo dept. Take a look at how Hilly is marketed overseas as opposed to Minny:
Another example of the difference made in promoting the white and black actors on The Help is below (oh, well there really was no lead black actor. Unless you want to count the black brute stereotype of Leroy, Minny’s abusive husband):
Notice how Stuart Whitworth is called “handsome” in an effort to rehab the “good ol’ Boys” who practiced segregation. Just like the book mentioned nothing about the beauty of the African American culture, the movie continued this practice.
Why Minny’s statement about frying chicken got changed from a grumbling throw away line in the book into a line that will link the actress and the fictional character together forever is anyone’s guess. My hunch is somebody thought it would be a hilarious piece of advice, never mind that blacks and fried chicken are a touchy subject. Since Spencer’s prior profession was as a comedian, my money’s on her thinking it was just peachy. Also, an earlier short film collaboration titled “Chicken Party” may have been the basis for paying an unflattering homage to blacks and fried chicken in The Help:
And while its not a line that will be often repeated as sage advice – it takes a village comes to mind – only a few reviewers called it out for what it was. A piece of dialogue that earns a big WTF?
The writer and MSNBC TV host Toure reviews The Help for Time Magazine:
” . . . In The Help, Octavia Spencer’s Minnie actually says to a white woman, “Frying chicken just makes you feel better about life.” I must be doing it wrong. Once the ditzy blonde learns to use Crisco properly, she does indeed feel better about life. Even though she has just learned that she’s probably infertile. Minnie helps turn her boss lady into a regular Martha Stewart, and what does she get out of it? The promise of lifetime employment as the family maid. Thank yuh, ma’am. Davis’ Aibileen tells the white kids she’s raising, “You is important,” while being constantly reminded that she is not.”
Though Aibileen’s “You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tant” was created to manipulate the heartstrings, the frying chicken lines add to the comedic buffoonery of Minny. The character is meant to be laughed at, from her physical being (I’m referring to the chase scene that was altered for the movie, where Minny runs away from Johnny Foote instead of Minny vs. the naked guy jacking off). In the book Minny’s girth was the source of cheap slap stick as she risked her life and that of her unborn child (she was possibly early in pregnancy with her sixth child) as she took a knife and a broom to accost a naked pervert outside of Celia Foote’s house. Minny tells Celia to lock the door behind her as she turns into the “noble savage” stereotype, whereby a minority risks their life in a foolhardy manner that’s supposed to make audiences think they’re a “credit to their race” for doing so.
And for those unaware, there’s an offensive, stereotypical history about pairing African Americans and chicken. Far too often it was used to mock and degrade blacks in ads and in jokes:
For the history of the Coon Chicken Inn, please click this link:
Southerner D W Griffith brought Thomas Dixon’s best seller to life, The Birth of a Nation. In the book and movie, the Klu Klux Klan are portrayed as heroic, while African Americans and Northerners are carpet baggers and corrupt legistrators. There’s the black brute character who lusts after a white woman, the lovely liberal, a Mammy character, loyal ex slaves who can’t seem to adjust to being free, and the scene below, using a scare tactic to show just what might happen if blacks were in charge politically:
Even children weren’t spared when it came to perpetuating this stereotype:
While Octavia Spencer went on to win an Oscar in her ode to food, especially chicken, Mary J. Blige was chastised something fierce for doing a Burger King commercial where she sung the praises of their chicken sandwich:
‘I would never just bust out singing about chicken and chicken wings.’ – Mary J. Blige
‘I wanted to crawl under the bed!’ Mary J Blige says ‘racist’ Burger King advert ‘crushed her’
‘It was sold to us that I would be shot in an iconic way,’ a frustrated Blige told Hot 97’s Angie Martinez during a radio interview today. ‘I did it because I thought it was something that wouldn’t come out like that.’
The black woman-oriented website Madame Noire labeled the ad ‘buffoonery,’ saying it depicted blacks in a stereotypical way.
The I Can Do Bad All by Myself Grammy winner said the whole debacle ‘hurt my feelings. It crushed me for like two days.’
So why the double standard? How is it that Mary J gets called out, but not those involved in The Help’s resurrection of a known stereotype that made many African Americans see red when being used back in the day:
And when Gladys Knight agreed to be the spokeswoman for Aunt Jemima syrup there was also outcry in the black community, and that promo, like the one for Burger King was pulled.
I happened to find this well researched and highly informative pdf paper online. The author of the section on Aunt Jemima is Judy Foster Davis. It’s well worth reading the entire scanned paper. Some things the paper reveals:
The comedic actress Jackee was supposed to be the spokesperson for a campaign aimed at modernizing the brand for a new generation.
Carolyn Jones, an African American who ran her own adverstising firm was enlisted as a consultant. Ms. Jones was an expert at marketing to the black community and, as per the paper, was regarded as the most prominent African American in the ad industry at the time. Ms. Jones expressed concerns with a number of marketing plans presented to her.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
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Link to scanned PDF (please remember, this is someone else’s research. While it’s available on the web, it is a copyrighted paper that has been cited several times):
But it’s not as if African Americans avoided all mention of the word “chicken.”
The Museum of African American cinema has this clip of the musical soundie Chicken Shack Shuffle, sung by Mabel Lee:
Fried chicken wasn’t the only food Minny used to dredge up laughter.
Her “terrible awful” secret concerning a pie served to Hilly even had the producer Chris Columbus and author Kathryn Stockett laughing about “Negro shit.” Most African Americans who’ve experienced segregation would hardly feel the funny in all this as Spencer tries to clean it up, but Stockett and even producer Chris Columbus don’t seem know when to quit. Liberalism at its finest (eye-roll):
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!
Instead of wondering just how an African American could get away with putting their own feces in a pie in such an oppressive state like Mississippi, especially during the height of the civil rights movement, some reviewers had fun providing a recipe for chocolate pie, which omitted Minny’s use of that “Good Vanilla from Mexico”:
The Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia is a must reference site for information and images from America’s segregated past.
This post is still being developed . . .