At the Movies, Mammies Make Way for Mourners

Imitation of Life's Juanita Moore
Juanita Moore in her Golden Globe-nominated performance as “Annie” in Imitation of Life


Actress Juanita Moore is most known for her Golden Globe-nominated performance as “Annie” in the classic Lana Turner and Sandra Dee star vehicle Imitation of Life, a 1959 remake of the original 1934 film based on Fannie Hurst’s novel. The actress to play the part before Moore was Louise Beavers, for what was widely deemed the greatest role a “Negro” actress had ever played up until that time. In both versions, viewers witness the Black mother’s excruciating anguish after her “tragic mulatto” daughter rejects her.

Initially, all is well. One random sunny day at the beach, Moore’s character “Annie” helps a well-off White widow (Lana Turner) track down her fass daughter (Sandra Dee). Annie becomes fast friends with the widow, “Lora,” and her daughter, “Susie.” Soon, she is not only working for them but living with them in their home. She finds so much favor in their home she can also move in her daughter, “Sarah Jane.”

Much of the story centers on Lana Turner’s character, her struggles with her own daughter, and the uncomfortable love triangle arising from her daughter’s serious crush on her man “Steve.” Occasionally and briefly, but always powerfully, Annie intrudes on all that melodrama to show why her performance drew such attention.

Sarah Jane takes after her fair-skinned father, so she can pass for white. The older Sarah Jane becomes, the more she despises the association to Blackness Annie’s motherhood confirms. Eventually, Sarah Jane reduces her mother to a weak, defeated soul. This is painful to watch. Their final scene together happens after a private eye locates the runaway Sarah Jane: She is living in California as a White woman. Annie flies out to see her. Moore maintains breathtaking pride and poise in Annie’s well-wishes and goodbye.

Yet throughout all her own heartbreaks and abandonment, Annie never wavers in good and strong care to the White women she works for. She only stops tending to their domestic and emotional needs when the tables turn. Severe depression makes her too sick to go on. Mahalia Jackson cameos to sing “Trouble of the World” at Annie’s funeral, where Sarah Jane re-emerges in hysterics and shame.

recently revised edition to reflect new films

Moore’s character falls in the traditional continuum of the “Mammy.” She is a cinematic archetype best exemplified by the first African-American Academy Award-winning performance, Hattie McDaniels as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy in the 1939 film adaptation of Margarett Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. Al Jolson famously sang Mammy’s praises, while in blackface, in 1927’s The Jazz Singer. She is best defined in Donald Bogle’s cinema studies masterpiece Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks.

The Mammy is a depiction of Black women, humorous at best and lampoonish at worst. It originates in true history and some fantasy of Black women as safer than Black men for our nursing and caretaking abilities, used to the maximum in slavery (we were called to suckle other women’s children and even keep their husbands satisfied). Films and literature have continued to explore the trope- Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy is the standard- of this Negress role in America long after Emancipation, into the form of domestic servants and nannies of even today.

The Mammy is a passive, asexual, one-note supporting cast member to the true heroes and heroine’s trials and goals. Those heroes and heroines are White people who view her as, impossibly, a mother figure and infantile subordinate at once. She is directly rendered as such in the novels and adaptations The Member of the Wedding and The Help, less directly (and humorously) in Ghost and the “Gimme a Break” TV show.

Sometimes she creeps up out of uniform or into relation to Black people, such as A Raisin in the Sun‘s “Mama” and Soul Food‘s “Big Mama.” Once in a blue moon, she has agency and her own story, such as Alex Haley’s “Bell” and Kincaid’s “Lucy” and Walker’s “Celie.” I have no statistics for my claim, but the most common contemporary role for brown girls seems to be the Black woman as sidepiece to others’ struggles, a ride-or-die chick (for her man and her friends), and convenient free therapist for any woe imaginable. All these are tangential varieties of the Mammy.

However now, civil revolution against and revisited conversation to the apparent renaissance of lynch-mobbing Black lives has necessitated a new Black female character onscreen: The Mourner. This Black woman, unlike the Mammy, has emotions. They include rage- and she can actually express it. This Black woman, unlike the Mammy, sets out on a path directed by her own needs and desires- no one else’s. This Black woman, unlike the Mammy, shuts down expectations she is capable of caring for folks. Instead, she demands to be taken care of. This Black woman, unlike the Mammy, is the centralized star of the movie. And she has a very big job to do.

She has to mourn.

This Black woman had to buy her freedom to agency and complexity for a high price. That price was her child’s life. The child is typically lost at the outset or opening minutes, to get straight to her point. Such is depicted in a spate of films now depending upon a Black woman losing a child violently with no one held accountable. The Mourner must pick up the ball law enforcement, racist power structures, societal hierarchies and even her own relatives want to see dropped. Now The Mourner, not The Mammy, is making careers and nominations for Black actresses where there would be little to none. This is a chain reaction to our times.


The Mourner was always there in American cinema, but she was silent or camouflaged. The responsibility to convey state wrongdoing fell in The Mourner’s eyes and on the shoulders of her acting abilities, however small or large her part. Working without color and sometimes sound, early Black filmmakers captured The Mourner with shots of Black women weeping and wailing beneath lynched bodies. The 1977 television miniseries Roots featured many Mourners, whose slave children were kidnapped or sold off, so therefore as good as dead.

The template for The Mourner formed its bones as the Black Power Movement shone a spotlight on mass incarceration. Beginning in 1970s films, The Mourner was visiting her husbands and sons whom American racism and corrupt laws conspired to take away from her. Cicely Tyson most notably contributed to The Mourner’s viability as a character audiences enjoyed and wanted to see. She played a Southern woman whose husband was jailed unnecessarily in 1972’s Sounder (based on William Armstrong’s novel). In 1999 in A Lesson Before Dying (based on Ernest Gaines’ novel), she would play the family friend who helps a condemned man’s mother prime her son to face execution with dignity.

In Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1975), The Mourner is a stigmatized “Welfare Queen” in Los Angeles. She is suspended in perpetual mourning for her missing husband T.C. She is only briefly relieved when he gets out of jail, but quickly returns for unspecified reasons. Pam Grier put down her crying towel and picked up guns when her boyfriend is murdered by a drug syndicate in 1974’s Foxy Brown, transforming grief into power and revenge.

Oprah Winfrey was The Mourner often: as the mother of a jailed or murdered child in the adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, in the adaptation of Alex Kotlowitz’s study of Black in Chicago projects There Are No Children Here and of course in the adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a mother mourns a child she killed before slavery would have anyway. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, her child’s murderer is Vietnam.

The Mourner most crept into newsworthy relevance in the 90’s era of films documenting Black life in dangerous “hoods.” But these stories were usually not about her. It was about her slaughtered and endangered Black sons. In Boyz n the Hood (1991), she gazed down at what would have been college admission test scores for her son if he had not been shot dead right near his home. She was at a funeral for one in Juice (1992). She tore back the yellow crime scene tape surrounding a seedy L.A. motel’s parking lot, to race into the arms of the crime’s lead detective in Michael Mann’s 1995 cops and robbers classic Heat. There, her prostituting teen daughter was murdered by a deranged White crew member.

Two notable exceptions, where The Mourner rose from passing thought to main point, are Poetic Justice and Set it Off. In Poetic Justice (1993), Janet Jackson plays “Justice”: an L.A. hair stylist whose boyfriend is shot dead as they ride in the car together. She first mourns through Maya Angelou-scripted poetry, radical appearance changes and depression. Eventually she converts all that into a self-discovering adventure and romance with a new man.

In Set it Off (1996), Jada Pinkett plays “Lena”: a hardworking janitor who cleans rich people’s homes and sleeps with old players to save for her little brother to go to college. As their parents are dead, her brother is like a son to her. But in a case of mistaken identity, L.A. police shoot him dead. In mourning, Lena looks like a wan and robotic shell of her former self. She finds an outlet for her sadness and anger: a bank robbery scheme she masters with her other disenfranchised Black women friends.

Lena’s status as The Mourner, and the LAPD’s guilty conscience for why she became one, bequeaths her quite a different destiny than her accomplices at the end. And given how strait-laced she tried to be for the sake of the brother she was a mother to, she would have remained in her paycheck-to-paycheck existence, never joined in on lucrative bank robberies without her ad-hoc son’s death. Finally in Set it Off, The Mourner’s miserable situation elevated her prior life condition and options. Her mourning turned the tables on police or power structures who would have otherwise destroyed her with their inflicted grief.

But even with this thematic shift in The Mourner’s purpose and character in a film like Set it Off, it was actual social injustice and ensuing societal upheaval that proliferated her appearances today for real notice. Today her entire point in her film is to be a visceral visual testimony to the grief and suffering racism has wrought. She must elevate the subjects of discrimination and racial terrorism from Black History Month talking points or thinkpiece elucidations to transposition onto actual human bodies. She must flaunt Black women’s battered emotions and exhausted psyches, little-talked about in America’s reluctant slave past recognition.

Octavia in Fruitvale Station
Spencer plays Wanda Johnson, police fatality Oscar Grant’s real-life mother

Octavia Spencer was tasked to channel Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, in Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s 2013 documentation of the last day of Grant’s life. Police illegally detained him in an Oakland BART system train station and then shot him to death while he was restrained. Spencer remarked she had to think of her nephew to understand Johnson’s pain, confusion, sadness and anger largely absent from the film until Grant lay dying in a hospital (Johnson last saw her son alive and well at her birthday party Grant helped organize for her).

After her first Oscar as the sassy anti-Mammy who refused to fit into that box in The Help, Spencer almost earned a second nomination as The Mourner in Fruitvale Station– not fiction, but a real-life Black woman whose murdered son remains an iconic symbol of police brutality on Black men.

In playing Johnson, Spencer imagined a real role countless Black women have had to play while grieving under the glare of national spotlight. The publicity and public outcry for their children’s deaths prevent them from closet grieving, pressure them with respectability politics to keep their rage at bay and constrict their behaviors to perfectionist attempts; they are aware they reflect their slaughtered children the public seeks to discredit into blame for their own deaths.

Trayon Martin‘s mother Sybrina Fulton is the leader of this “Mothers of the Movement” club she noted “I did not ask for membership in,” when many of them appeared at the 2016 Democratic National Convention at Hillary Clinton’s behest. She and her husband wrote a book about their son, Rest in Power, which became a BET mini-series documentary.

Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden and Sandra Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal have also, like the widows of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, had to assume leadership roles comforting the national Black population and consciousness amidst their unimaginable losses. This year Stephon Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson, who raised Clark and his siblings in Sacramento, was passed this torch: to be a public activist for justice while in mourning, on-camera and with an audience. Because of them and their pain, we see a shift in what Black women can play and express in film as moving image witnesses. Surely, more members are coming.

Spencer’s The Help co-star Viola Davis also transitioned from a Mammy in that film to The Mourner in Lila & Eve, a drama premiering at Sundance in 2015 and co-starring Jennifer Lopez as “Eve.” Like Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, Davis plays the title character “Lila” as shunting her anguish into guns and revenge when therapy falls short. Lila’s son was killed in a drive-by shooting in Atlanta. The culprits are somewhat known, but police indifference and system apathy for her Black son’s life leave Lila alone to demand justice.

Then her mysterious friend Eve shows up. She forces Lila to face facts: the authorities do not care about lives on their side of town. So she and Lila leap into Atlanta’s underworld to exact vigilante justice. This updates Lila’s mourning into power. By the end we must wonder if Lila’s friend was even really real, or just her excuse to do what she needed to do.

Davis and Lopez in Lila & Eve
Mourning becomes revenge for Viola Davis in Lila & Eve


The most thorough and brilliant manifestation of this new genre of Black female movie image comes through Regina King in Seven Seconds, the 2018 Netflix series she has received her fourth Emmy nomination for. The Mourner here is Latrice Butler, a God-fearing married woman determined to give her son Brenton a good life in Jersey.

Her family’s happy life halts when White officer Peter Jablonski is distracted from driving on tough snowy roads, on a phone call with his pregnant wife. He hits Brenton, who has skipped school to visit friends across town and is riding his bike back home. Jablonski does what any overpowerful police officer would: he calls his police friends, not 911 or an ambulance. Those cop buddies convince Jablonski to deny he was ever at the scene and drive away. Then they remove as much evidence as they can and leave. That chilling cruelty, not the accident, results in Brenton’s death which could have been avoided. He remained in the snow for hours before discovery, to exacerbate life-threatening injuries no one attended to quickly.

Regina King in Seven Seconds
Her son’s killing propels Emmy-nominated Regina King into mourning- then action.

For a third of the 10 episodes, The Mourner stays in optimistic limbo as her son struggles on life support. Latrice’s strong faith in God carries her far as an intricate cover-up unwinds; another Black woman is her primary ally: District Attorney K.J. Harper (Clare Hope-Ashitey). Harper suspects Brenton’s accident is not the fault of the alcoholic bum cops try to frame for it. Sexism and racism in her male-dominated legal and law enforcement industries keep her intuitions and investigative skills against the ropes. Eventually the evidence piles. Finally the stars align to reveal a hidden witness, the mistakes of Jablonski’s guilty conscience and the corrupt cops’ paranoid slips.

Seven Seconds, ironically based on a Russian film, is a scathing indictment of American justice twisted against Black people. Latrice must vehemently push back against inflammatory media reports and police suggestion that her son was a gang member, as if his bicycle path was a drive-by street he was just waiting to strike on. And, it if was, it would have justified his killing and made him responsible in his own death for being “up to no good” (This is the framing of Trayvon Martin George Zimmerman gave 911 dispatchers, as the teen boy walked home from purchasing Skittles and ice tea at a nearby 7-11).

The Mourner is a victim of not just race but economics and class. Everything from Brenton’s ability to stay in the hospital with health insurance running out to the family’s ability to afford a lawyer are advantages to their son’s killers, as distractions from focus on pursuing them. Latrice is haunted by “little things” she notices and remembers but others try to make her believe none are what she thinks they are: clues to Jablonski’s identity. As in real life, when Black women’s strict limits against a range of emotions draw accusations they are “mad” or “crazy,” Latrice’s insistence to be heard results in questions about her mental health. Soon come threats to have her institutionalized.

As I watched the few scenes of Latrice’s husband Isaiah in his slaughterhouse job, I was reminded of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, the moving story of a Black man needing to do this work. Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) is spared the execution role. He merely cleans, sneaking in moments to pet the pigs and sheep waiting for death. Inside the emotional mayhem and financial binds as aftermaths of his son’s death, he misses one day of work in almost 20 years at the slaughterhouse. For this, he is fired despite begging for his job. This is one of the most heartbreaking demonstrations of forced Black male pride I have seen since Denzel Washington calmly withstood the whip in Glory. Isaiah walks off his job with plans to keep his unemployment from Latrice, now unraveling in full determination to track down her son’s killer.

Eventually, Isaiah has no choice but to accept that his frantic and relentless wife is on to something. By then, King has extinguished whatever shred of Mammy she could have possibly played. Her home is a mess. The one day she does cook a decent meal again, Isaiah is shocked. It has become so rare. Latrice’s reverend must show up to her home to lecture her on lapse from her expected saintly role; she is no longer tending to a congregation’s needs to see her in the choir and pews. The Mourner has no time to comfort us with the duties, roles and image we are used to from her. Her child is gone. She rises to more.

To avoid spoilers for those who have not seen the 10-episode series, I will only say a criminal trial comes. The Mourner shows up and plays her part, of course: respectable, stalwart, polite and beaming with hope despite the grim low place in society she’s learned her family occupies. And the Black female D.A. does as well, despite knowing the same about her place and an ending twist to confirm Jablonski knew Brenton was alive when he left him bleeding in a ditch in the snow.

There is so much to remember about British director Steve McQueen’s frightful and beautiful and unbearable Twelve Years a Slave, the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2013. The revelation that is Lupita, of course. An impeccable script based in an historical truth preciously preserved. An eerie Kara Walker-influenced set design exacting something truly none of us ever wanted to see for real in our lifetimes: a Southern cotton plantation. The title slave Solomon: hero for our times, those times and future times.

Briefly in the haunting combination of all that I remember is The Mourner. She is not there long, mostly the beginning. She wails into the day and night as her fellow slaves go about their lives and work. Her masters ignore her. A broken and bewildered Solomon begs her to be quiet. She can’t. Auctioneers took her children away from her. This was not for 12 years, since it is no hope to find them in this gigantic strange land she can not read or write herself out. The parting was forever. No matter if her children are dead or alive, they are dead to her. She will continue to work, for sure, so she does not wind up dead for sure. But, she will also mourn and never stops.

Sister girl played that part.

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