Hattie McDaniel

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Maid in America—Oscars tend to award Black actors playing stereotypical roles

 

 

When Viola Davis lost the Oscar for best actress portraying an African American maid in Katherine Stockett’s The Help to Meryl Streep portraying former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, there was a collective sigh of relief from many of us African American sisters. Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, summed up my feelings best when she told MSNBC that ”what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid.”

Earlier during the Academy Awards ceremony Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her stereotypical role as the sassy, tart-tongued, “mammy-fied” maid, Minny Jackson, in The Help, making Spencer the fifth African American woman to receive the coveted Oscar, and the second sister portraying a maid. Sixty-two years earlier, in 1940, in Jim Crow America, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, for her supporting role as a maid called ”Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. When civil rights groups, like the NAACP, criticized McDaniel for her portrayal as “Mammy,” McDaniel famously retorted, ”I would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than seven dollars for being one.”

Knowing of the controversial legacy stemming from McDaniel’s role, Davis told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross her ”role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliché… You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.” Davis contested she gave depth and dimensionality to her character by pulling from the actually lived experiences of both her mother and grandmother, who worked as maids. Continue Reading →

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