Maid in Hollywood: A Rite of Passage?


Theresa Harris

Fleeing the life of a sharecropper in Louisiana, this bright-eyed aspiring actress headed straight for Hollywood. With an impressive 50-plus film credits, Harris is noted for her role in The Flame of New Orleans (1941). You'll find similarities to Harris' life in a new off-Broadway play, By the Way, Meet Vera Starks, starring Sanaa Lathan and written by Pulitizer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. (Read a review of it here.) Here's a scene of Theresa Harris doing her thing in the 1940s film Buck Benny Rides Again.


Captions by Abdul Ali

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel, the child of former slaves, was the first black actress to win the Academy Award for best supporting actress in Gone With the Wind (1939). Though McDaniel's character epitomized the "mammy" stereotype, she imbued the role with an emotional intensity. In response to criticism from the NAACP, McDaniel responded, "I'd rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one." 

Louise Beavers


Louise Beavers' portrayal of Dalilah in Imitation of Life (1934) was a breakthrough in American cinema — Beavers' character's story shares equal prominence with that of Claudette Colbert's. Her heartbreak when her daughter Peola passes for white resonates even today.

Claudia McNeil


McNeil is perhaps best known for her role in the movie version of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1961), in which she plays the matriarch of the Younger family. While it's implied that she does domestic work, her role as a strong mother is central to the film.

Diahann Carroll


Glamorous on- and offscreen, Carroll shocked audiences with her Academy Award-nominated turn in the film Claudine (1974). Carroll's performance made a searing critique of a public welfare system that discouraged marriage. Being a maid did not define Claudine — she was a devoted mother of six trying to hold things together in Harlem — while being wooed by James Earl Jones. There's hardly any residue of the "mammy" stereotype, though she plays what would become another stereotype: the "welfare queen."

Esther Rolle


Best known for her role as Florida on Good Times, the seminal '70s sitcom, Rolle often played an even-tempered matriarch who just happened to be a maid. On Good Times, Rolle's character adds a perspective to what it means to be working class and living in the projects. Toward the end of her career, Rolle gave a stunning performance in the film Rosewood (1997) as Aunt Sarah.  

Marla Gibbs


If there were an award for being the most irreverent maid on television, Marla Gibbs would surely win for her saucy Florence Johnston in The Jeffersons, which ran from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s. Though Gibbs' character plays into racial stereotypes of a black domestic with a bad attitude, her boss is black. In this scene, George Jefferson attempts to assert his "power" over Florence, but to no avail. See if you can figure out "Who's really in charge."

Oprah Winfrey


Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the strong-willed Sofia in The Color Purple (1985). Her most memorable scene? When she famously says, "Hell, no" after the mayor's wife asks her to be her maid. In that scene, Winfrey taps into the collective indignity that generations of black women endured.

Whoopi Goldberg


Goldberg has played a maid multiple times. In the film Corinna, Corrina (1994), she plays a college-educated housekeeper who loves jazz and dreams of writing liner notes on record albums. But as she tells her boss, "They only let us play the music, not write about it." With Corinna, Corinna, the mammy-maid stereotype is turned upside down. Goldberg is the leading lady, the romantic interest who helps her employer's daughter speak again.

Viola Davis


The best-selling novel The Help has been adapted into a movie starring Viola Davis. The book has stirred up a bit of controversy — a black woman who worked for the author's family is suing. Is the movie a departure from old-school depictions of black help? 

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