This is a guest post written by Chicago attorney and writer Kimberley Egonmwan.
At best, black women are featured in a handful of major motion pictures any given year. Given that dismal fact, I must ask myself why, with the limitless possibilities that fiction offers, does the black woman character almost always end up in the same position: needing to be helped by Caucasian characters, while remaining in a subservient role? With all of the characters we’ve had to suffer through, what makes anyone think this kind of movie is still okay?
Defenders of the genre will say that at least the main character in the latest manifestation of this on-screen relationship trope – The Help, which is based on the best-selling book by Katheryn Stockett and opened last week – is a “dignified” maid. That argument gives cold comfort to thousands of black women who are just plain tired of seeing this role recreated ad nauseum.
And here’s the key issue: the degradation of the black woman in film today is far subtler than in the movies of yesteryear. Whereas she once stood (and sometimes still stands) as a mockery, bucking her eyes like a clown, black women have settled comfortably into their latest role. We are almost universally used to help the progression of the non-black protagonist.
This role may manifest as the sexless “friend,” the “confidante” or the wise cracking, loud-mouthed, sassy “know it all” with no backstory of her own. She exists on the periphery, all-knowing and readily telling everyone else the right thing to do, while never having her own life or man.
If given dignity, it’s a kind of unrealistic selflessness that further excuses her character from having the same drives and ambitions as the other characters. She is tired, hard and so used to her low station that someone more privileged must sweep in to let her know how badly she’s being treated. The biggest injustice is that whatever their personal integrity, black female characters are continually shown as the sidekick in their own story, always within the context of race, with their voices used to provide teaching moments for the real characters.
Take, for example, recent female-driven films like The Devil Wears Prada and Nanny Diaries, in which the helpful black friend (Tracie Thoms and Alicia Keys, respectively) appears on screen solely to assist the central white character (Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson) through life and love. Or consider the 2009 Oscar season: Sandra Bullock took home the Best Actress Academy Award (The Blindside) for playing a white woman who takes on the role of mother to an unwanted black male football player, whose “non-racism” was continually held up as an standing-ovation worthy virtue instead of a basic tenet of human dignity. Meanwhile, Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress (Precious) for portraying one of the worst mothers ever seen on film. She not only physically, emotionally and sexually abused her daughter on a regular basis, but she also encouraged her “man” to as well.
These are the roles that Hollywood rewards and, in the process, reinforces.
Unfortunately, true to Hollywood form, The Help is aesthetically pleasing. These trappings will make the underlying subject matter extremely palatable to many who watch, completely pacifying the outcry that should have accompanied the opening of such a movie in 2011.
It’s tiring that no matter how much she is abused, the black maid on the silver screen (in The Help, Viola Davis takes on this role, along with others) is shown to love her boss’ family as much, if not more than, her own. She takes care of their children as if they were her own, teaching and spoiling them. Her character finds her place in the household more honorable than anything she goes home to, because her home life is never developed to stand on its own merits. This is a total fantasy. This woman never existed in real life; why is she always in a movie?
Contrary to every blindly devoted black maid you’ve ever seen on screen, when a black woman took care of another person’s home and children, it was to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure the continued survival of her own family. There’s no question that these women quite often suffered indignities and slights at the hands of their superiors because, in truth, especially before and during the civil rights era, domestic service was only a few steps away from slavery. It was just about the only work a black woman was allowed to do. She cleaned other people’s homes to raise and educate her own children.
She knew firsthand – largely from the example set by the family for which she worked – that money did not equal class, and that pedigree did not ensure good breeding. She had to carry herself a certain way to combat the stereotypes that continually dogged her skin color. Her struggle produced the generations of black women that live today. And, just as I’m sure she would want, it’s time to put that character to rest.
It’s a travesty that as we attempt to stand side-by-side with women and men of every race in society, we continue to be their servants on film. What greater purpose does this serve? It’s time to move on. It’s time to stop ignoring the thousands of other stories that reflect the lives black women lead every day. We are teachers, daughters, doctors, lawyers, wives, housewives, heroines, villains, mothers and yes, maids, but always flesh and blood women with self-determination. Only when they begin to tell that story, will they have our attention.
And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers.
Every black actress in The Help says it’s a great film. No surprise there. Even Hattie McDaniel stood by her performance in Gone With the Wind, because no working actress will ever criticize the work in which she appears. If she did, she may never work again.
If the actors can’t or won’t speak out, then it’s up to the consumer to make his or her feelings known. Let me make this as clear as possible: we don’t want to see this type of character or story plot anymore. We want to be seen as we are: women who are at the foreground of our own lives, and not in the background of someone else’s.