Last week I sat in on a lecture on the history of Barbados and how long it literally takes to create real change in a country, particularly following colonization. The lecturer highlighted other countries, including Brazil and the United States, both of which struggled with creating change in a postcolonial society. The common thread among the countries was that it took approximately 100 years for real change to occur after the abolition of slavery.
I thought about this idea of "real change" in relation to the "postracial" era in which we are supposedly living — and in the Hollywood film industry as awards-show season rolls in with all deliberate speed.
On Sunday night, Octavia Spencer won the 2012 Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her spirited performance as Minny Jackson in the controversial film The Help. I often think of The Help as a feel-good film about segregation in which the struggle of black women as domestics is boiled down to a basic catfight. While the performances of all involved were inspired, the film, much like the book, failed to demonstrate the horror of being black, female and powerless in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.
The filmmakers applied a "postracial" approach to the subject matter, elevating the visibility of black domestics in Mississippi while downplaying the real conflicts that were in place during the time period, like rampant racism and the constant threat of terror experienced by blacks and sympathetic whites.
The Help indicted white women, portraying them as petty and catty, while letting white men completely off the hook. With high-profile examples of the treatment of domestics by employers in the segregated South (Strom Thurmond) and recent high-profile examples of maids in the media (Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger), the relationship between domestics and employers is a complicated one that deserves more than beautiful blue skies, sweeping crane shots, a great sound track and cobbled-together performances.
Perhaps I wanted to see a different story from the dominant narrative, in which the lives of the black domestics were marginalized in favor of the white protagonist Skeeter's desire for independence. Never mind that Skeeter gained her independence by telling the stories of the black maids, many of whom could not escape their fate, unlike Skeeter, whose privileged status helped seal their fate and hers.
It is the same fate that black actresses must fight against in Hollywood: the certainty of playing a maid, prostitute or mammy figure and then being celebrated for it. While Spencer's performance in The Help was stellar, it is highly problematic that she is being lauded for playing the role of a maid 72 years after Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for playing one in Gone With the Wind.
To be clear, this is not a critique of Spencer or McDaniel or a class critique — both of my grandmothers worked as maids in the segregated South. This is a critique of a system — the Hollywood film industry — that has changed very little over the last 100 years in terms of the roles created for black actresses.
If the lecturer was correct and real change takes 100 years to occur, then I'm not sure what's going on with Hollywood, which has been making films for more than 100 years. The continuous circulation and celebration of stereotypical images of black women (in fact, all women, but that's another article) is problematic.
There were praiseworthy performances by black actresses in films this year: Nia Long in Mooz-lum; Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans in Pariah; Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Michole White in I Will Follow; and Judy Reyes in Gun Hill Road. And yet the awards shows continue to focus on stereotypical images of black women in mainstream films that satisfy the dominant ideologies of who and what black women are in society.
There are 28 years left until the 100th anniversary of Hattie McDaniel's historic Oscar win. Hopefully, by then there will be real change in the way black women are portrayed in mainstream film and television, change that reflects our full humanity. If business as usual continues in Hollywood as it relates to black women, then sadly, we will still be celebrating wins for playing a maid, prostitute or mammy figure in 2040. And in that case, decision makers in Hollywood are in need of a kind of help that an overhyped book and film cannot possibly provide.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.