The practice of using African Americans and Africans, as well as other minorities as objects of ridicule to sell products in America and around the world is nothing unheard of. However, during segregation this practice reached a new low. And now with the Dreamworks produced film The Help teaming up with HSN (Home Shopping Network) to mine the subject matter of segregation for additional profits, though it called for gravity and instead was played for laughs, as expected the result is simply a return to ignorance. More on HSN and Help teaming up can be found here.
No matter how the studio and their representatives try to spin it, this is insensitivity at its worst. There are other documented instances on this site where individuals, including the author appeared to have no clue about the raw nature of the subject matter the film, and also what the book dealt with.
Once Kathryn Stockett’s polarizing novel became a hit, there was no stopping those who sought to build a “franchise” and increase the money in their pockets. Understand that this isn’t to assist the African American community. Even if it were, the notion of selling anything related to a bloody and oppressive time in U.S. history carries its own baggage. No, whoever dreamed up this movie tie in understood it was simply to generate income in the bank accounts owned by investors of the film.
Expecting them to know anything about civil rights history, which is American history would be a stretch. However studios hire consultants to avoid this very thing. No one wants to appear to profit from a subject that still causes pain. And yet that’s exactly what they’ve done.
From Kathryn Stockett publicly stating in three (known) audio interviews that Medgar Evers died as a result of being “bludgeoned” to director and screenwriter Tate Taylor’s admission that Stockett’s book editors had no clue about Jim Crow Laws, and his own questionable Chicken Party film, and producer Chris Columbus revealing the studio wanted to put out a cook book to tie in with the movie, to say mis-steps have been made would be an understatement.
Because the end result is simply an entity intent on using African Americans once again, to make a profit.
An excerpt from the site Life in the USA: Food Advertising Icons and Trade Characters
A number of food advertising icons have African-American roots. Aunt Jemima (pancake mixes), Uncle Ben (rice) and Uncle Rastus (popularly called the “Cream of Wheat Chef”) all have roots in racial stereotypes. Aunt Jemima’s character was based on a real woman, Nancy Green; beginning in 1893, Green began a career of playing Aunt Jemima for promotional events; her image became the icon it still is. Rastus, the Cream of Wheat chef, began as an invented woodcut image that was replaced in the 1920s by the photograph of a black Chicago waiter, name unknown, that is still on supermarket shelves today. Uncle Ben’s history dates back to the 1940s, when the image of Chicago Maitre D’ Frank Brown, a good friend of the product’s developers, was used for the popular rice. Generations ago the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” were used by whites to address older African-Americans in a way thought for years to be demeaning and patronizing. The subject of protests in the 1950s, Aunt Jemima’s image was modernized; she lost the distinctive “mammy” kerchief that had been viewed as a mark of servility.
The average moviegoer, whether domestically or worldwide will probably never know the historic milestone achieved by Will and Jada Smith’s production company.
By casting Jaden Smith (their talented son) as the lead in the re-boot of The Karate Kid and also having the good sense to sign a major star like Jackie Chan, not only was the series re-ignited, but this was the first time a pre-pubescent African American male headlined a major motion picture (The crime movie Fresh had the second youngest African American lead). And Jaden wasn’t cast just to make audiences laugh. The eleven year old (now twelve since the movie’s release) played the underdog, as did Jackie Chan. More importantly, Jaden played the hero (as well as Chan in the role of the elder hero). The Karate Kid had two actors from under-represented racial groups as leads in the film.
Reportedly made with a budget of 40 million dollars(http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=karatekid2010.htm) and an investment of 5 million by the Chinese government (www.deadline.com) the film has gone past 150 million as of this posting. That doesn’t include worldwide gross or DVD sales once the movie leaves theaters.
And while the casting choice of Jaden didn’t sit well with some fans of the original, or having the US title remain The Karate Kid (the movie is based in China, and its title outside of the US is The Kung-Fu Kid). Having seen both movies, they each stand on their own merit. In the new version Jaden Smith plays Dre Parker, a kid who moves to China with his mother. Jaden is the outsider, the new kid not accepted since bullying is an age old problem. Yet the movie does not make the young bullies into monsters. At the end of the movie Mr. Han (Jackie Chan’s character) is given the respect he so richly deserves for getting Dre to the top spot. In truth, I’d hoped to see Dre not win the first time out, and perhaps set the sequels up where he strives to attain a national trophy. But to watch either movie is to suspend belief (both Ralph Macchio and Jaden especially were slightly built leading males. The level of punishment they received in their respective films would have them hospitalized for months at the very least).
Had the re-boot been made a few years ago, a black male would have either been cast as the smart aleck sidekick, or not at all. Or perhaps a bi-racial male who could pass for white would have won over the casting director (as actress Jennifer Beals of Flashdance managed to do).
Yes, there has been progress made in representing persons of color on the screen. But it wasn’t always so.
White actors/actresses have a storied history of playing other races. Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins played the near white professor Coleman Silk in the movie version of the novel The Human Stain. Wentworth Miller, a bi-racial actor was at least cast as the younger version of Coleman, and according to the actor, had to present his birth certificate to prove he was both black and white.
Whenever a book was written to include a tragic mulatto character a white actress usually landed the role. Two exceptions were Fredi Washington as Peola in the original film version of Imitation of Life and Halle Berry in the TV-miniseries Queen.
In the 1950s version of Showboat lovely Ava Gardner (whose singing voice had to be dubbed) won the role of Julie, the singer passing for white, and whose lover was white. And this was during the time when the legendary Lena Horne could and should have been cast.
In the 1949 movie Pinky, Jean Crain played the black woman who could pass for white, a woman who also had a white love interest. Broadway and film veteran Ethel Waters played the nurturing role of Miss Em (unfortunately, she’s not listed in the credits on this poster)
In the remake of Fanny Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Susan Kohner played Sarah Jane Johnson, a young girl who didn’t want to be black because she looked white.
Claudette Cobert and Louise Beavers played the employer and maid respectively, in the 1934 version. Louise played “Delilah” a maid who willingly gave over her pancake recipe, making her employer millions. Fredi Washington, a beautiful black actress who actually could pass for white, played “Peola” the light skinned daughter who decided to pass for white and disowned her black mother Delilah.
In the 1959 version Lana Turner played the employer, an actress who finds fame on Broadway and Juanita Moore played Annie May, the martyred, doomed mother of white actress Susan Kohner.
But blacks were not alone in being portrayed on screen by whites. Debra Paget played her share of Native American women, cast along side heavy weights such as James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Stuart Granger. Not surprisingly, when a white actress played a Native American or other minority, they were afforded a white love interest. Actor Jeff Chandler and even Burt Lancaster played lead roles of Native American war chiefs. However, when British actor Richard Burton played a half caste, his leading lady was none other than sex symbol Lana Turner.
I could only find in comparison Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles in blackface as Othello. Though Lawrence Fishburne did finally headline the 1990’s film version, produced and also starring British actor Kenneth Brannaugh (a remake, or update of the play called O was released in 2001 starring Mekhi Phifer of Clockers fame).
Othello was the rare role where a black male could possibly headline a movie during the 30’s and most of the 1950s. Most often, blacks were relegated to domestic parts, asking “more tea suh?” to a suave and debonair white cast.
From WB Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and to some extent, major publishers using white models on books with a minority protagonist (click here for a tale of two covers ), African Americans as well as other races have been mis-represented on paper and on screen. All because of skin color. And most importantly, the color of money.
But what does all this have to do with The Help?
The characters of Aibileen and Minny are not breakthroughs (since it’s not African Americans being marketed to). Just substitute Aibileen and Mae Mobley (with all due respect to the legendary Ethel Waters) in the 1949 poster of Pinky:
The characters in THE HELP are re-cycled images.
They’re also not very good roles. To play Aibileen, an actress will have to portray quiet strength while reciting insensitive lines written with the “ideal” black domestic in mind in several voice overs.
To play Minny, eye stretching, eye rolling, hands on hips, and possibly physical pratfalls will be necessary (the naked pervert scene, where she’s bashed in the head) to embody this character. And since both characters were given “humorous” dialogue, they’ll be competing against each other for the coveted title to see which one’s the funniest maid.
If anything is learned from previous adaptions of books to film (Sue Monk’s The Secret Life of Bees) one can only hope the jokes from the novel will be used sparingly. And while Aibileen is certainly a starring role, because she endearingly mangles words in the book (like pneumonia for ammonia) the producers risk alienating filmgoers. While readers can skip over a page in the book, going to a film to hear more than enough “I be’s” and “she say” and “he done” may be too much for any moviegoer to sit through.
The film, unlike what the book failed to do, requires nuanced handling of crucial scenes.
For more information and images from days long past, an excellent site is the Traveling Museum of Jim Crow Memorabelia, located on the campus of Ferris State University
And if you’d like to see how African Americans combated stereotypical ads with some of their own, then click here.
To be continued…