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art politics, black actresses, Film, maids

“Maid” in Hollywood: America’s Love Affair with “The Help”

Two weeks ago, my daughter and I snuck into a screening of “The Help.” It was a Bonnie-and-Clyde operation. (We weren’t officially on the press list.)  What made risking embarrassment worth it is that my daughter wants to be an actress. And like any doting father, I’ve taken to nurturing her nascent interest in acting. Her summer has been spent at theater camp. While she learns about stagecraft, her dad writes about film and theater—interviewing actors, playwrights, and directors at traveling productions that trickle to Washington from New York.

Though only twenty years separate us—in Hollywood years—one would think we’d be further along as a national cinema. Just as my parents and grandparents did, I grew up watching films in which black actresses portrayed maids and it seems my daughter has inherited a cultural legacy that should have phased out with paper bag tests, hot combs, Jheri curls (and a miscellany of other unflattering aspects of African American lore.)

We’ve spent hours watching films and discussing their political implications over the past couple of months. We watched “Sarafina,” and bobbed our heads to Miriam Makeba’s freedom song on Netflix. Much to my delight, my daughter independently made the connection between the South African apartheid of the 1990s and the American apartheid experienced here in the United States by millions of African Americans in her grandparent’s lifetime (or more accurately, great-grandparents.)

For two hours and seventeen minutes, my daughter and I watched a Julliard-trained thespian shrink on the screen as a slow-talking maid from Mississippi.

“The Help” presented a heavy burden as an African American father. This proved to be much more than a daddy-and-daughter’s night out. In effect, I had to sift through a century-old racial narrative in American film with my seven-year-old. Viola Davis’s character, Abilene, triggered numerous questions for my daughter.

Every five minutes or so, she’d lean in whispering Why don’t those ladies take care of their own baby? Why can’t the black women use the same bathroom as everyone else? Was this during slavery days, you know, back in the day?

Having to shh my daughter after each question brought home the fact that this film presented a larger quandary than I had bargained for: how does a seven year-old reconcile the image of a black woman playing a maid from the 1960s with the image of her mother, a professional woman, or say, Michelle Obama, our first lady or even her first grade teacher? Will the roles of black actresses ever catch up with the times?

It’s stunning how Hollywood has progressed in inches in the past two decades. When I was my daughter’s age, I remember seeing films like “Claudine” (1974) starring Diahann Carroll, who plays a maid.

And while actress isn’t uppermost in many people’s minds when we think of Oprah Winfrey, I still believe that she gave one of the finest performances I’ve witnessed in American film in the past almost three decades as the strong-willed Sophia in “The Color Purple” (1985). Though she initially tells the mayor’s wife “hell no” when solicited “How would you like to come work for me, be my maid.” In a heartwrenching twist,  Sophia (Oprah Winfrey)  ends up being a maid to the mayor’s wife until old age–a sobering reality of how the agency of black women have been severed thanks to white racism.

There was Whoopi Goldberg who starred in “Corrina Corrina” (1994) where she plays a maid for the Singer family but quickly becomes the love interest, a huge shift from the typical narrative of black maids, suggesting a progressive strand after all in Hollywood studios, albeit belated.

This isn’t to say that my daughter (and kids her age) should be protected from a very real aspect of American history. But as a father who happens to love film how do I temper my frustration with a Hollywood that probably will never create the kinds of roles that serious African Americans train for years in hopes of one day getting a big break—as a maid.

“Sometimes we’re so concerned with image and message, and not excellence. No one ever ask white actresses like Meryl Streep or Jodie Foster what messages they’re going to take away from their films” Viola Davis told Essence magazine recently.

It’s hard to disagree with Davis. I get that African Americans can be overly concerned about image (but for legitimate reasons.)

As the theater lights turned on, I noticed my daughter’s eyes were glossy. I didn’t need to say a word. As we walked out of the theater I said, “Aren’t you glad you were born in 2004, instead of 1904?” She nodded, shot me a pensive looks then said, “When I grow up I’m going to be educated.”

I nearly bit my tongue as Viola Davis went to the Julliard School, one of the finest training grounds for serious talent. If only a good education could save a black actress from pushing a broom across the silver screen. I’m her father but does that give me the right to burst my daughter’s dream? What are the chances of her becoming the first black actress who didn’t have to play a maid? Possible. But, this is one conversation I don’t look forward to having when she gets old enough to know that to make it as a black actress is to be “maid” in Hollywood.

Abdul Ali is a freelance culture writer who resides in Washington, D.C.

About Abdul Ali

I'm a fellow at American University studying creative nonfiction and poetry. I write across a few genres but it's all brought together by larger questions about culture.


7 thoughts on ““Maid” in Hollywood: America’s Love Affair with “The Help”

  1. first, in terms of your craft, from a teacher’s perspective, it is really, really sweet to see how much your writing continues to blossom! that being said, you need a transition between your third and fourth paragraphs.

    but i digress. the roles in hollywood have not changed that much, but, then, neither has america. the concepts portrayed in the movie the help are not history. that’s the issue. the author of the book, who is in her early 40’s, was raised by a black nanny, and the character, abilene was based off of a real person who is still a nanny for the author’s brother’s children. it ain’t over till it’s over. we still can’t let the sun set on us in certain parts of the country, in spite of obama and michelle. and the images still ring true and speak to black audiences as well as white ones. one day we’ll have more fabulous roles for black people in general. but actresses like davis are fabulous, regardless of the roles they play.

    Posted by J Marie Darden | August 12, 2011, 11:46 PM
  2. I wholeheartedly disagree with you. In the film Viola and the other black actresses do not simply play “maids” – they are, through this movie showcasing injustice during that time. Viola did an excellent job. Secondly, African-Americans have this unwritten rule that we “must move on” – while many other marginalized people have the attitude of “never forget.” There’s a reason why we should “never forget.”

    Our history puts context into what is happening right now within our culture. You wonder why so many people of other races can’t figure out why unemployment within the African-American community is so low, or why a huge percentage our kids (and the educational system in urban areas) are so far behind academically. They wonder why the incarceration rate is so high – or why black women have assumed such a big role in the family dynamic. This movie, as small as it is – offers a little bit of perspective. For instance there was a portion of the movie where Mississippi law was recited – the portion about textbooks within black and white schools was powerful. This type of story happened 40 to 50 years ago, that’s not that long.

    On another note, I applaud you for taking your daughter out for a bonding experience – but 7 is WAY to young for a movie like this!

    Posted by Tonya Mosley | August 13, 2011, 9:48 AM
  3. Thank you for your commentary..many will take you to task..I really agree with your analysis. And, that your young daughter asked those questions, is the whole point of knowing about this kind of behavior and treatment of Blacks. It is a beginning to speak of this and say how it is still there but, more subtle. Thank you again.

    Posted by Andrea Battle | August 13, 2011, 11:18 AM
  4. We have not done a good job of sharing and helping our youth to understand our history. One night as I was sharing my ‘Jim Crow’ experiences with my godchildren, they looked so incredulous; they thought of those experiences as beyond the scope of anyone they knew personally. It was in that moment that I fully realized the disservice that we have done our youth. I plan to see ‘The Help’ and take my mother and my godchildren. Should prove to be an interesting evening. I find your characterization of the Julliard trained actress as shrinking…superb acing is superb acting period.

    Posted by faieart | August 13, 2011, 12:40 PM
  5. Thanks so much for reading my OpEd. Please keep in mind that this was not intended to be a review. My goal was to engage this film from the perspective of an African American father, which I assumed would be a missing, counterintuitive angle to talk about this film.

    In all honestly, I thought the acting was stellar, particularly, among the African American actresses. I didn’t even realize that that was Cicely Tyson–that’s how transformative her performance was.

    And while I’m a huge fan of Viola Davis, and I believe that artists should be free to inhabit any role, I remain disappointed that the first lead role for Viola Davis was this one. But maybe my view is problematic and flawed just as Hollywood is.

    I really appreciate these comments and for the tremendous attention this piece has garnered.


    Posted by Abdul Ali | August 13, 2011, 8:14 PM
  6. my seven-second review of The Help: ‘Geeethafkouttaherewitatbullshyt!’

    Posted by Radha Blank | August 15, 2011, 9:39 AM
  7. Wow! I have to say this post really opened my mind and made me realise that I really hadn’t thought about how such films would impact on the younger generation – naive at best I’m ashamed to say 😦

    I have the greatest respect for you though in taking your daughter to see such a film and having such a strong desire for her to grow into a well rounded human being Abdul.

    Thank you for sharing 😉

    Posted by Tracy Baker | August 16, 2011, 3:08 AM

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