I love Tavis Smiley, but even he himself states he had maids in his family. So did I. So did many African-Americans. Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, spotlighted a domestic and the interior struggle she had with her profession. Dianne Carroll played a maid to a White family in one of my favorite films, Claudine. These characters were mothers, lovers, comediennes, multifaceted; they were not Mammies. We need to start separating the singular accomplishments of Black artists from the “Black” conversation as a whole in order to truly determine the merits of the work.
If this conversation concerned Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball or Denzel Washington in Training Day, then I could understand the attack; neither of those roles represented the pinnacles of these actors’ contributions or potential and what would have been rewarded had they been White actors. But The Help does for Ms. Spencer and Ms. Davis.
The first time I noticed Viola Davis was in Antoine Fisher. In that film, she did not have one line as the Black mother who had abandoned her son to foster care, molestation and abuse, and a potentially devastated life. She was living in squalor when Antoine Fisher finally tracked her down in the projects where she could barely look him in his eyes. The only line she gave us was a single tear drop at her humiliation, shame, and regret as Antoine confronted her. I did not know who she was or what her name was, but I knew she was going to be a star. And now that she is, she is being condemned? What is a more dignified and controversy-free role: an irresponsible mother who abandoned her child to continue in poverty over triumph, or a Black woman earning an honest living with conviction and being good at it? But no one complained about that because it was Denzel’s film.
I love The Help. I think these women did a fabulous job. It is no secret African-American women have been maids. It is not like they were supporting characters in a film about White women; they had depth, confidence, real stories, fullness. I agree with Tavis that the entertainment industry as a whole seems to spotlight and privilege the prurient and perverse when it comes to Black Americans. I agree that our heroes are largely unsung as a whole in the media. But at what point do we accept–as Claudine did–that we have also been maids and garbagemen, and the best-looking and hardest working ones at that?It is an insult to all the slaves, maids, lower working class, uneducated and prematurely imprisoned Black people in this country to deny their narratives. For what…heroism?
Heroism is always going to feature the extraordinary; who are we to silence our race’s most mundane and ordinary people–often the keepers of our richest wisdoms and stories? Although it is one of my favorites as well, we are NOT all The Cosby Show and we would be creating a lie if all of our art had to pretend that. We need to relax and not let others set the standards for what we should be proud of. These women have been working in Hollywood for a very long and admirable time. We should be standing by them for winning roles that were substantial, thoughtful, and lovely. We should not be debating and stirring up “messiness” when other actors and races are only celebrating. It is not Ms. Davis’s and Ms. Spencers’ responsibility as artists to change history–but only to portray it.