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Thinking Of "The Help"... Films Exploring Black Maid/White Employer Relationship (Survey)

by Tambay A. Obenson
April 22, 2011 4:34 AM
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Hmmm... the hullabaloo over the film adaptation of The Help, starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and others, since its trailer was released earlier this week, inspired the content of this post - specifically, it all got me thinking about films in cinema history that have dealt directly with the tenuously symbiotic, strained relationship between black maids and their white employers, which goes back centuries and crosses borders.

Note, I'm not talking about films in which there are black maids as peripheral/supporting characters, but rather films that, again, deal with that specific relationship, and/or the effects felt by the maids especially, or that tell the story from the maid's POV, not from their white employers. So, I wouldn't necessarily include many of the films that feature Hattie McDaniels' sassy, bossy maid roles, because I don't think they fit the above criteria; while she was certainly a presence, the films were never really about her, or told from her POV, becoming essentially a cinematic caricature and stereotype. I haven't seen every single film she's played a maid in, so there might be one that does fit. If so, I'm sure someone will say so.

However, Ousmane Sembene's La Noire De (aka Black Girl) most certainly does belong on the list; although I'd say the film is about more than just this deceptively simple story of a Senegalese maid; it's rich with symbolism and complexities that are essentially reactions to, and analysis of, the cultural legacy of colonialism. But I'll put it on the list. It really captures her everyday mundaneness and monotony, and the resulting mental anguish she suffers, leading to its fatal conclusion.

So, chime in folks... the subject is, again, films in cinema history that focus specifically on the black maid/white employer relationship, told intentionally from the maid's POV, or, at least, give us a complete and complex representation of her. Let's see what kind of list we can come up with here. We might actually come to find out the The Help may be one of the more revolutionary examples in the group, as hyperbolic as that might sound; because I don't believe that particular relationship, despite how present it is in real life, has ever really been examined and explored in front of a camera lens.

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  • kj | June 11, 2011 8:29 AMReply

    The two extraordinary short films by Lisa Collins:

    Tree Shade

    Miss Ruby's House

  • DorisArboles | May 27, 2011 1:07 AMReply

    The question I asked friends earlier today is what movies portray Africanamerican women workers organizing themselves. Hope to find example over the next several days. Any leads would be appreciated.

  • DorisArboles | May 27, 2011 1:05 AMReply

    Have you seen BABY FACE (1933)? I have not. I wonder if it in anyway meets the criteria of your question. Doubtful that the movie is told from the AfAm woman's perspective, but, according to this article, it portrayed a amicable, somewhat equitable relationship between the parties. About to track this film down.

  • Tamara | April 25, 2011 4:53 AMReply

    Let me think on this. I can give some 'real life' examples, but can't recall off-hand any 'on-screen' examples that have already been mentioned....

  • Gigi Young | April 23, 2011 10:41 AMReply

    I think you're shortchanging Hattie McDaniel's career. I'm a major classic cinema buff, and after three years of films from the 30s-60s comprising 95% of my viewing habits, the role of the black maid (and the actresses who portrayed them, such as McDaniel, McQueen, Harris, etc) were complex and depended upon the studio, the leading actors, the screenwriter, the plot, and the characters. For example, I can say that McDaniel's maids toed the line of "insolence", but when the script called for a maid who would talk back to her employers and was considered a bit of an equal, a white actress was usually cast. Actress characters usually employed black maids who were sometimes played for comic relief, but were usually periphery, and if the leading lady played a housewife/mother, her black maid was usually the "mammy" stereotype. Interestingly enough, I just watched Stella Dallas (1937), and the black maid employed by Barbara Stanwyck's character was sort of a friend to them, and called the daughter (Anne Shirley) by her nickname ("Lollie"), without the "Miss" in front of it.

  • Melissa | April 23, 2011 8:02 AMReply

    What is America's obsession with Black maids? I know they were a part of history but so were seductive Black jazz singers...

  • Vanessa | April 22, 2011 8:52 AMReply

    mmm Driving Miss Daisy? Corrina Corrina? The Long Walk Home? not really on the POV.. Gone with the Wind? J/K on that last one.

  • JMac | April 22, 2011 8:43 AMReply

    Can't think of a single movie where it's from the Black maid POV. Wide Sargasso Sea had parts of the movie from the black maid - but she wasn't really a maid - not quite. I'll just sit back and wait for better answers.

  • Naysue | April 22, 2011 6:33 AMReply

    I guess an easy choice would be Imitation of Life, both the original and remake. I could hardly sit through the original since the black maid was just too giving. "Take my pancake recipe and get rich--I just wanna be happy being your maid. Living in the basement of your pretty white mansion is all I need. Keep yo money..."

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