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Maid in the USA

by: Dr. Clarence Spigner | Back to Blog index...

Katherine Stockett’s excellent novel, The Help, is about the African American maids who worked in white households in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s.  Stockett reflects the brutal realties of 20th Century slavery being carried out in pretentious southern white households that continued from the Slave Era through Emancipation and Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era to the modern Civil Rights Movement.  Pray that Hollywood does not attempt a film adaptation or we will see yet another white-wash of racial reality.

Women-of-color as house servants in the USA have a unique history in Hollywood imagery.  Unlike their male counter-parts, such as Anthony Hopkins as James Stevens in James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) or Michael Caine as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), an inherent class, gender and racial bias diminishes any valid world view of maids-of-color on the silver screen. Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy, the loud-mouth house-servant and slave who kept her place in Victor Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic, Gone With the Wind (1939), exacerbates this class, gender racial dynamic.  McDaniel won an Academic Award by emphasizing just how deferent a Black maid had to be and the image has prevailed.  

In David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), set for the most part during the period of Jim Crow in New Orleans before Katrina, provides not even a hint of racism, curiously.  Taraji Henson’s portrayal of Queenie, a Black nurse for aging and neglected white people, is essentially an off-shoot of McDaniel’s slave-era Mammy, so much so that “Momma” is what the white protagonist, Benjamin (Brad Pitt), calls her.  The film’s period was in an incredibly repressing era for African Americans, yet The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presented Black servitude as if it was the age of racial equality.

Films set in the turn of the 20th Century, such as Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985), did not represent African American maids in oppressive white households.  Why should it? The major concern Black women had in The Color Purple was the predatory behavior of Black men with not a hint of externalized racism during the early 1900s.  The later Depression Era was represented in Robert Mulligan’s Depression Era To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and presented Estelle Evans as the house-servant Calpurnia.  Evans had a small role, but brought as much dignity to the southern household of liberal lawyer Atticus Finch as the plot would allow. Calpurnia provided far more insight into the racially defined hierarchy in the American south than Benjamin Button or The Color Purple.

It is ironic that Estelle Evans’ sister, Esther Rolle, portrayed another African American maid in another white southern household. Esther Rolle was Idella, the house-maid in Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  This film, set in America’s 1950s, was about an unlikely friendship between the Black chauffeur Morgan Freeman and an elderly Jewish woman, Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy). The well-meaning Driving Miss Daisy was supposed to be about bridges across the racial, gender, and class divide, but the film was about as unbelievable as the harmonious racial climate presented in Benjamin Button. What was very real, however, was Idella and Hoke, the chauffeur, having to eat their meals in Miss Daisy’s kitchen.

Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home (1990) reflected the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott following Mrs. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man.  African American maids in the South risk their jobs and their lives to honor the boycott.  Whoopie Goldberg portrayed Odessa Cotter, a maid for an affluent white southern woman (Sissy Spacek). The Long Walk Home assumed that white southern households had to be rich to afford a maid.  But Black maids were paid such low wages that some white families only slightly above the red-neck status had maids.  Goldberg (her real name is Caryn Elaine Johnson) later appeared as college educated house-servant and surrogate mother Corrina Washington in Jesse Nelson’s Corrina, Corrina (1994) and later in Rob Reiner’s Ghost of Mississippi (1996) as Myrlie Evers, wife of the murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

But if Goldberg’s opportunism (by choosing a phony name reflective of the industry’s Power Elite) makes her suspect among many African Americans, then so does Jennifer Lopez who goes back and forth across the racial divide.  Lopez appeared as Marisa Ventura, a Puerto Rican hotel maid in Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan (2002).  Similar to Corrina, Corrina, the film was modern-day fairy tale featuring a Republican politician (Ralph Fiennes) falling in love with a Latina he mistakes to be a rich matron.  Go figure! Maid in Manhattan might be resurrected as equal opportunity film propaganda for the Tea Party.

Hollywood continues to make trivial the anguish and indignities all maids endure.  The industry has yet to do justice by depicting realities of many women-of-color who are forced engage in legalize slavery just to make a living.    

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