The new film, “The Help,” starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer has gotten a bit of buzz recently. The film is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett about two Black maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi during the late 1960s. I was curious about the film, since my first impression is that it is a female version of “Driving Miss Daisy.” I can’t say, however, that I am curious enough to want to watch it — for I’ve seen films like this one before.
My obvious bias against the film has nothing to do with the quality of the script or the enormous talent of the actresses in the film. Rather, it has to do with the fact that I grow sick and weary of seeing yet another Hollywood production that is so quick to grab onto a racial stereotype. Most of these films have the brave white protagonist, who has the courage to (gasp!) treat us like we’re actually human beings. Films such as “A Time to Kill” and “Amistad” are perfect cases in point: In the midst of telling a very painful story about the Black experience, the film makers always take the time to ensure that the white guy is the hero. So, even when we’ve been self-sufficient, it’s only because a white person has allowed us to do so — even benevolent white supremacy is still white supremacy, nonetheless.
This leads us to the controversial question of the day: How should African Americans feel about seeing ourselves portrayed in roles that are subservient to whites or fulfilling some other stereotype? The great Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in “Gone with the Wind,” once said “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.”
McDaniel’s point is well-taken. It’s very difficult to get work in Hollywood for anyone, especially African Americans. Additionally, the story of the pimp, the athlete, the maid or the shoe-shine man is just as relevant as the stories that were once told on the Cosby Show. Not only are we sugar-coating our reality by demanding that all roles fit a counter-stereotype, but we are engaging in the same elitism that cripples our society at large.
While we must allow for all stories to be told, this does not excuse us from the responsibility of confronting Hollywood for the fact that they are far quicker to allow us to play stereotypical roles than to express the breadth of our existence. One can’t fault Viola Davis one bit for taking on this role, but I can bet my last dollar that the same executives who chose Viola to be a maid would not be so interested in casting her as an astronaut or physician.
A one-dimensional approach to African American portrayals simply represents the same tired garbage that we’ve been watching for the past century. I won’t go see “The Help,” because I have no interest in giving Hollywood a financial incentive to create a sequel to scripts that confine Black men and women to being nothing more than trusty sidekicks to their overseers.
But the most important thing to remember is that the first step toward controlling our destiny on-screen is to control our destiny off of it. That means that the financing and ownership of Black cinema is an important step in our cultural evolution. But even then, the degradation of the Black image on screen may occur at the hands of a Black film maker (as Sheila and Bob Johnson once showed us with their ownership of BET). That’s the flaw of thinking like Hattie McDaniel: there is nothing wrong with passing up economic opportunity if you are doing so to protect your integrity, but we must always pursue a double bottom line and there are things in life that are far more important than money.