Racism? Why I’m Not Surprised By The Help’s Nomination For Best Picture

January 25, 2012  |  

From Driving Miss Daisy to The Blindside to Crash to Avatar, Hollywood has a knack for creating whimsical, nostalgic and comical characterizations of our racist past and the current structure of racial inequality in this country.  It appears that the only way for Hollywood, and more importantly the dominant culture, to become interested in films about race relations is to create narratives that ease white guilt, pushes the message that everyone is a little racist, and shows that everything wasn’t “that bad.” And don’t get me started on the whole white savior complex, which many of these films use as a conduit to tell imaginary tales of white heroes, who never existed.

In 1966, Senegalese Director Ousmane Sembene released his pioneering film Black Girl, which explored the relationship between a young Senegalese servant, Diouana, and the unnamed French couple, who employ her. Through this film, we see how Diouana is basically kept captive in a small apartment in France, not even being afforded the opportunity to go out and explore the city or even receive a regular paycheck. Spiritually depressed and robbed of her dignity, Diouana’s life takes a tragic turn for the worse. Through this story, Sembene does not present us with a heroic white character nor does he try to convince us of good versus bad white folks. Instead he opts to show that period for what it was. A time when black folks were invisible and white folks, regardless of social class, political or social leanings, benefited greatly from this sort of subjugation.

In real life there was no Skeeter Phelan to save our real black domestics from their horrible existence. My great grandma worked as a domestic. In fact she had to drop out of high school in order to help support her family.  When she was alive, she never talked about her domestic work or her former employers, other than to say that she was glad when she found better work.  That was good enough for me. Sure, there is no shame in doing whatever it is you have to do to feed your family. But if any of our ancestors had a choice, one unrestricted of the racism that kept them subjugated to certain fields of employment, then they would have probably told Mr. and Mrs. to kiss their behinds long ago.

If both Davis and Spencer happened to take home the Oscar for their roles, no I won’t be surprised. Although I will still be happy for them.  In the words of Hattie McDaniel, who once was publicly raked for playing a Mammy too: ”I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” However I will still be rolling my eyes hard at Hollywood for their Pollyanna portrayals of a period in time when Black women were being yanked from the back of the buses by their hair and Black men were being beaten and lynched on dark Mississippi roads all just for a taste of equality.


Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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