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Esther Rolle Flashback : "They Never Got Beyond Me As A Maid... In The Mainstream"

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 10, 2011 7:49 AM
8 Comments
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Fitting and timely recognition of the late Esther Rolle posted today on The Hollywood Reporter, considering today's release of the polarizing Viola Davis feature film, The Help.

The piece reminded me of a survey I posted back in April titled Thinking Of "The Help"... Films Exploring Black Maid/White Employer Relationship, in which I asked you all to name films in cinema history that focused specifically on the black maid/white female employer relationship, told intentionally from the maid's POV, or, at least, gives us a complete and complex representation of her.

The were few responses, because there have been so few films that fit the criteria. I mentioned Ousmane Sembene's La Noire De (aka Black Girl) as a good example, to start things off.

No that The Hollywood Reporter piece adds much to satisfy, but it does alert the reader to a film in which Esther Rolle co-starred in, titled Summer Of my German Soldier, set during WWII, in which she plays a housekeeper to a young 13-year-old Southern Jewish girl caught in a doomed relationship with a German soldier.

I haven't seen the film, which was based on a book of the same name; this is the first I'm actually hearing about it. It was a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1978 on NBC.

The Hollywood Reporter didn't care for it though, calling the material promising, but the script weak, and that the film failed to live up to expectations.

I'll have to give this one a look. Apparently, Rolle's role ("a loving housekeeper who becomes the girl's only confidante") was meaty and solid enough that she won an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Limited Series Or Special category.

But good luck finding it on home video, where it only exists in VHS format. I couldn't even find a proper trailer or clips of it.

THR does mention Rolle's career highlight, though it would be playing yet another domestic (prior to the above movie) - this time as maid Florida Evans on the early/mid 1970s comedy sitcom Maude, and its spinoff Good Times - a role that she'll likely always be remembered for.

She would eventually leave Good Times because, as THR notes, she took issue with Jimmie Walker's J.J. portrayal, saying that she did not "agree to do a clown show to degrade young black men." And this was after she already expressed reservations about continuing on with the series after husband James (played by John Amos) was killed in a car accident, because it would mean the family would go on without a father, which didn't jive with her original attraction to the series was - the presentation of a black family lead by a strong black father.

Aaahhh yes... there goes that whole burden of representation thing popping up again... except this was over 30 years ago.

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8 Comments

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 2:49 AMReply

    *tastes site*

    Not bitter. It's actually quite savory and delicious. Good nourishment, it is. Keep on, keeping on S&A!

    To the topic, I have never heard of this film or Esther's role or even winning an award for her portrayal. Truthfully, I only know of her work in "Good Times" and "The Mighty Quinn". Yes, "The Mighty Quinn". lol

  • dcmoviegirl | August 11, 2011 6:05 AMReply

    @Sara

    Movie criticism is movie criticism, meaning a big part of it is actually critiquing aspects of it.

    One can like, love, and even enjoy a film, while *gasp!* still having problems with aspects of it.

    ...Crazy, I know.

    There are plenty of websites that don't critique film, but simply provide advertising or brief summaries of the films.

  • JMac | August 10, 2011 11:13 AMReply

    Yes, it seems a wealth of black stories were on tv as opposed to theaters back then (70s and 80s). Bad part is if someone doesn't remember it, we don't realize it exists. Do I smell a new topic? LOL

    We had a similar one on slavery movies vs. holocaust movies and I could list a few civil rights movies/series but they were on tv and didn't "count."

    Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry was another good one. Also made in 1978. I didn't realize it was a book until a few years after they played movie again in the early 80s. Morgan Freeman is in it but I've never heard anyone mention this film.

  • Gigi Young | August 10, 2011 10:53 AMReply

    @ JMac, they killed James off for the same reason Florida Evans was so fed up: the decreasing focus on black life in the ghetto, and an increase in buffoonery via J.J..

    That said, I am equally surprised at this movie's obscurity. I loved the book as a child after it was assigned to my class and had no idea it had been adapted! I've been combing through a few filmographies of black actors and actresses on IMDb and am surprised by the number of TV movies--not only mainstream, but black-focused--that are languishing in TV Valhalla. I managed to DVR "Stompin' at the Savoy" earlier this year, and it makes me wonder why no one is thinking "TV movie"! It seems to be both a dying and a vibrant medium that has been ignored.

  • JMac | August 10, 2011 10:32 AMReply

    Everyone else here gets the gist of this post I'm sure - this is not a bashing The Help post. You should read it fully next time.

    Weird how this movie hasn't come up even though Ms. Rolle won an Emmy for it. I remember the E THS on Good Times.... didn't know there was so much drama but I guess I should have. I don't remember why they killed James off. Didn't he leave Mary Tyler Moore to do Good Times? At least in later episodes, JJ turned into a more responsible black man and wasn't so cartoonish.

    It was a nice surprise seeing Esther Rolle in The Mighty Quinn despite the small amount of her screen time.

  • sandra | August 10, 2011 10:30 AMReply

    I hope Viola doesn't get stuck in the downtrodden/servant type roles. I don't see how this role can propel her to better pastures, but we'll see since she defends it so fervently. Before this, she was stuck in bit therapist/doctor parts, generic law enforcement and BBF roles, so...it will be interesting to see what she gains from this opportunity.

    Hopefully, she won't be bombarded with more maid roles (not holding my breath though).

  • tambay | August 10, 2011 8:58 AMReply

    "Self loathing, annoying, woe is me threads"

    Oh boy... Really? Obviously you loved "The Help" and are ticked because of the thrashing it's received from others; and so you throw a tantrum.

    Did you even read the post Sara? Or you just looked at the headline and rushed to type up your rebuttal?

    I don't even know how to respond to this, which itself is also condescending; so I'll just be condescending some more and say this: if that's all you've gotten from the myriad of conversations we've had on this site, you obviously either haven't been paying attention, or feel overwhelmed by it because few are in your corner. You can always go elsewhere if our "bitterness" and "negativity" are too much for you to bear.

  • Sara | August 10, 2011 8:41 AMReply

    For the love of God, just don't go see "The Help" if you have such a problem with it. But all of these self loathing, annoying, woe is me threads are becoming redundant. I'm sure there is something out there that you can write about that won't be so condescending. Write about what you love and stop focusing on the negative if it is so insulting and belittling to you. Or better yet, build a bridge and get over it. I like this site but it is becoming increasingly bitter.

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