Maid In America

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Maid In America

When Viola Davis lost the Oscar for best actress portraying an African-American maid in Katherine Stockett’s The Help to Meryl Streep portraying former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, there was a collective sigh of relief from many of us African American sisters.

Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, summed up my feelings best when she told MSNBC that "what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid." 

Earlier during the Academy Awards ceremony Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her stereotypical role as the sassy, tart-tongued “mammy-fied” maid, Minny Jackson, in The Help, making Spencer the fifth African American women to receive the coveted Oscar, and the second sister portraying a maid.  

Sixty-two years earlier, in 1940, in Jim Crow America, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, and for her supporting role as a maid called "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind. When civil rights groups, like the NAACP, criticized McDaniel for her portrayal as “Mammy," McDaniel famously retorted, "I would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one."  

Knowing of the controversial legacy stemming from McDaniel's role, Davis told Fresh Air's Terry Gross her "role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliché. …You're only reduced to a cliché if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation." Davis contest she gave depth and dimensionality to her character by pulling from the actually lived experiences of both her mother and grandmother, who worked as maids. 

Spencer, too, had trepidations about portraying a maid, telling reporters that her mother was a maid in Alabama, and “her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’” 

In this “post-racial” Obama era, the subject of race and the politics of black representation in films are constrained by neither political correctness, personal enlightenment, nor moral consciousness. 

For example, in 2010 the historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at that year’s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in

Comments [1]

Jess Glenny's picture

Viola Davis

was so stupendously good in this film that for me she raised it out of the slush pit in which it otherwise belonged. Why isn't she up there with Vanessa Redgrave and all of those people. She's an actor of the first order. I'd love to see her in some Shakespeare. But of course Meryl Streep (also fantastic in The Iron Lady) was always going to get the Oscar. Go figure. The Oscars are racist and sexist. In the novel that the film is adapted from, Minnie is boiling over with rage, constantly. I was insulted by what happened to her in the film. She became the comic cut, rage excised, so no surprises that it was Octavia Spencer, playing Minnie who got the Oscar. She did what she could with what she'd got, but what she'd got was a travesty. Yeah, tired old 'rescued by a white person' plot. Black women empowered enough to make the audience feel good, but not empowered enough to make the audience feel uneasy.