Does the new film, The Help, show Black actresses playing maids to illustrate truths about a bygone era, or simply as cover to exploit and demean them as the movies have always done?
The first feature length movie Hollywood produced was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of A Nation. Up until then movies never lasted more than 20 minutes. Birth Of A Nation, though, was a full three hours long, and introduced the close up and other technical innovations.
What was the topic this cinematic landmark? The rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It was based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon which portrayed the Klan as a heroic force that saved the South from the supposed ravages of Reconstruction. The movie claimed that Black union soldiers, patrolling the South in the wake of the Civil War, systematically raped white women. It spurred a huge resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan which eventually attained a membership four million strong.
The president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, who held a doctorate in history and had been the head of Princeton University, is reported to have said, the film was “… like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Many African Americans died at the hands of white mobs enraged by what they saw on the screen. Years later, 10,000 robed Klansman marched openly down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Birth of A Nation was a silent film. The first sound picture was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. Its centerpiece was white actor, Al Jolson, dressed in blackface singing “Mammy.” (See the illustrations above. Note how the DVD logo is, itself, a subliminal reworking of a blackface image.)
The next major landmark in cinema was Gone With the Wind which again viewed the Civil War and its aftermath in terms sympathetic to the South. It was, essentially, a reworking of Birth Of A Nation, but politically correct in terms of 1939 sensibilities in its depiction of Blacks. However, looking back at it now, we clearly see its outlandish characterizations. Hollywood even went so far as to award the Academy Award for Supporting Actress to Hattie McDaniel who portrayed a vociferous, 300 pound maid. At the awards banquet, she was not allowed to sit and eat with the white Hollywood luminaries. The studio wrote her acceptance speech which she ended with the words, “I just hope I can be a credit to my race!” and then dashed off the stage, face streaming with tears of gratitude.
In 1963, Poitier would win the Academy Award for Lillies of the Field in which he played an itinerant vet who builds a chapel, free of charge, for a group of white nuns. Later, Morgan Freeman would win the Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy, Denzel for playing a corrupt Black cop brought down by a young white rookie, Halle Berry for being sodomized by the white man who killed her husband in Monster’s Ball, etc., etc. And the epitome for Black actors is still to play the sidekick/assistant/mascot for white stars.
As for The Help, no I have not seen it. Nor have I seen the new Planet of the Apes. But I did see Matrix and Avatar and Hancock and Independence Day and I Robot and a host of other major Hollywood releases in which African Americans are systematically demeaned and trivialized in subtle, and often not so subtle, ways. Yes, a leopard can perhaps change his spots (anything is possible), but it’s highly unlikely. Apparently, the only way to escape racial stereotyping in major Hollywood releases, is to watch films, of any era, in which Blacks are not depicted at all, or vice versa, whites are not shown. Examples of the latter include such classics as Carmen Jones, and Stormy Weather. At the time when major studio films are released, we are so caught up in the media hypnotism of the times, that it is only in retrospect, many years later, that we realize that we have again been played. But if you ever have any doubts about what Hollywood is really all about, just glance at the symbol for the DVD and see the symbol of a figure in blackface staring back at thee.
by Dr. Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com