Mammy to Minny: Shouldn’t We Be Doing Better?

“I’d rather play a maid on film, then be forced to work as one in real life.”  

Those are Hattie McDaniel’s words in response to criticism from the NAACP over her acceptance of servant roles in nearly 40 Hollywood films throughout the 1930s. Ms. McDaniel’s career reached its peak in 1940, when she became the first African-American person to win an Academy Award (Oscar) for her role as ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 Best Picture winner ‘Gone With The Wind’.  This was a time in American history when the employment opportunities for black women in particular, were largely limited to domestic services for white families. Yet, the NAACP and Urban League still pushed back against Hollywood stereotyping and demanded that blacks be depicted as being capable of more than just the role of the compliant maid or servant.

Fast forward over 70 years later, and the opportunities for Black Americans are certainly different. The most compelling evidence being a black woman residing in The White House for the last couple of years that is married to The President of The United States, who herself happens to be a Ivy League educated lawyer. It should make you wonder then why the same NAACP organization in 2011 found itself awarding a ‘Image Award’ for the role of maid ‘Minny Jackson’ in last years Best Picture Nominee ‘The Help’. Furthermore, you have to wonder who that movie was made for in the first place when you consider how different the lives of African-Americans are in 2012. Consider that the wealthiest self made woman on the FORBES 400 in 2011 was a black woman-Oprah of course. The most powerful woman in U.S. politics in 5 of the last 8 years was a black woman-Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State. The Recording Industry Association of America’s highest certified artist (in Gold & Platinum Plaques) of the last 12 years is a black woman-Beyonce. The most powerful woman in radio is Ms. Cathy Hughes (owner of Radio-One and TV-One.) Obviously we haven’t all reached these levels of success in life, but then again how often do we look to film to see the worst of ourselves? It is ok to see the occasional ‘Precious’ so long as it is counter balanced by more positive images. Where is the balance?

The annual OSCAR telecast was last years most watched single television broadcast outside of  National Football League programming in 2011. Obviously, the Academy Awards celebration is the single most visible, prestigious and oldest awards show in the United States. When the Academy of Arts and Sciences puts their stamp on a performance, a huge amount of attention is placed onto it. Let us take a look at a list of all the Oscar winning black actresses in the Academy and the roles/images they won for in the last 84 years: 1940- Hattie McDaniel won for her role as Mammy the maid in ‘Gone With The Wind’ (think of a sassy slightly larger Aunt Jemima bottle come to life); 1991- Whoopi Goldberg won for the role of Oda Mae Brown in ‘Ghost’ (or better known as the magic negro as coined by Spike Lee); 2001- Halle Berry for the role of Leticia Musgrove (a role turned down by Angela Bassett for its offensive characterizations); 2006- Jennifer Hudson for the role of Effie White in ‘Dreamgirls’ (in her sassy pre Weight Watchers days); 2009- Monique for the role of Mary Lee Johnston in ‘Precious’ (as an overweight, verbally and physically abusive AIDS infected mother who chooses her boyfriend over her daughter); and 2011- Octavia Spencer for the role of Minny Jackson in ‘The Help’ (as yet again a sassy, chubby, sharp tongued maid). It would seem that the preceding characters just about cover the varied spectrum of black women in the world in 2012 huh? If the NAACP had a problem with us being depicted as maids, cooks and shoe shine boys in 1939, then how the heck can we accept that now when we are capable of so much more?!

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