In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind” playing Mammy, Miss Scarlett’s maid. Her achievement was considered a breakthrough, and perhaps it was, though it was tainted by McDaniel’s treatment at the time. The African American actress was not permitted to attend the film’s Georgia premiere and at the Oscar ceremony, she took the long walk to the stage from a segregated table in
the back, far from where the rest of the film’s cast sat.
Things have certainly gotten better since then, something to note as black history month begins in February. But it’s bittersweet that in 2012, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, brilliant actresses both, are being celebrated – most recently at this past weekend’s Screen Actors Guild ceremony – for playing, yes, maids in “The Help.”
Their Aibileen and Minny are a far cry from Mammy, to be sure. The personal triumph through pain of Davis’s Aibileen serves as the story’s heart and soul; the defiant act of Spencer’s Minny — one that, let’s face it, would have gotten her lynched in the South of the 1960s — is both grandly comic and tragic.
But that the characters find a voice through a young white protagonist who ends up getting the credit and a publishing job in New York is kind of depressing. At the end of “The Help,” Aibileen is fired from her maid’s job and walks away, head held high, the moral winner. But, in the film and in life, what comes next? Seeing Davis and Spencer at the SAG honors, lovely in glamorous gowns far removed from their maid’s uniforms, I was happy for their wins and their heartfelt reactions.
I appreciated that their work elevated the characters and “The Help.” But will Hollywood now offer them parts that show what they can really do? Will they get a chance to be romanced and loved and cherished — to be the stars they are?
Though “The Help” earned adoration and daggers, I was in the middle, not loving or hating it. The film was a typical Hollywood crowd-pleaser, with some juicy performances. And wasn’t it great to see Cicely Tyson again?
In encounters with Kathryn Stockett, the author of the best-selling book, I jousted a bit with her as she dodged the criticism. I did admire her admission that the book was a fiction and her regret that she didn’t show more care and concern in her relationship with Demetrie, the maid who helped her navigate through her young life in Mississippi.
At a North Carolina meeting of black and white women who came together over their histories and “The Help,” I was struck by how deep the black and white divide remains, depending on whether you were mistress or maid and saw the past through affectionate haze or clear, underpaid, maltreated eyes.
Many of the black women at that meeting wondered, as I do, why it’s “The Help” that Hollywood adores and honors with multimillion-dollar screen adaptations, while the tales told by the actual help, in their words and through their tears, remain dusty on book shelves. It’s a safer, though less accurate road, and Hollywood as usual plays it safe.
So that the latest black women honored are the helpmates is no surprise. At least it’s a step up from the last African-American Oscar-winner, the pathological mother from hell played — masterfully, I admit — by Mo’Nique in that bit of Grand Guignol called “Precious.”
Davis herself sees the problem. In a Newsweek roundtable, she talked about, “the politics of it all,” that “there just aren’t a lot of leading roles for — I mean, I’m a 46-year-old black actress who doesn’t look like Halle Berry — and Halle Berry is having a hard time. … I have an absolute understanding and awareness of the image I project, and there’s just not a lot of roles for women who look like me.”
Davis has found flesh-and-blood roles on Broadway, and has earned two Tony awards for dramatic work in “Fences” and “King Hedley II,” both works not coincidentally by the African-American playwright August Wilson. She was also nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress in 2008 for a brief but moving role in the movie “Doubt.”
Black women, so many years after McDaniel’s Mammy made a splash, are surveyed and studied in a Washington Post series, as they still struggle to be respected as complex and essential voices in the American landscape.
McDaniel played the role of real-life hero in her time, entertaining black troops in segregated units and fighting to break restrictive covenants in her elegant Los Angeles neighborhood. Onscreen, she did the best she could with what she had. As she said, she preferred playing a maid to being one — and the daughter of a former slave and Civil War veteran had been one.
Davis has lots more to work with, and like those who came before, she adds a humanity that goes far beyond what’s on the page. I don’t begrudge any of them their awards or their choices.
By any measure, “The Help” does indeed make for a genuine, Hollywood feel-good moment. A beautifully written, full-blooded star turn for those who made it a success would make a feel-better one.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.