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Friday, September 09, 2011

Theresa Harris - Not Your Regular "Help"

I have not seen the movie The Help nor have I read the best-seller on which it is based. However, I have read quite a few blog posts and online articles offering varying opinions in a racial discourse that questions whether the movie provides any illuminating racial insight or whether it is just another cinematic example of black women being used to bolster white women's stories and lives. First off, this is not a slam against black domestics. My grandmother was a domestic who served a white family for many years. Her sacrifice provided food for her family and even provided me hand-me-downs when my mother and I ultimately came to live with her and my grandfather. I particularly remember a favorite red robe which I wore over the years until it became threadbare. It didn't matter that it was a boy's robe; my grandmother had given it to me with much love and it was so comfortable.

It has been suggested in many discussions that the depiction of the maids in the movie does nothing more than perpetuate the lingering "mammy" trope which has been a troubling stereotype foisted upon black women for years. It had been hoped that this trope had died a natural death with the progression of time but seemingly this is not the case. Unfortunately, the overwrought character is one which mainstream audiences never seem to tire of and therefore refuse to let die. To many who see the character as benign, there is something comforting about a black woman who gives so totally of herself that she has nothing left for herself or her family.

For those who think that this sentiment does not carry over into real life, I'm a living testament to how even distracted benevolence shown by a black women can be mistaken for mammyism. Case in point, while in my early 30s I temped at a well-known financial auditing company. While there I befriended a young, socially naive secretary in her 20s. She had a pleasant attitude and I didn't mind talking with her and on a few occasions going out to lunch. We talked about various things, nothing particularly soul-searching or earth-moving. One of the things she shared with me during our talks was her love of R&B music and old movies. Well one day out of the blue she shyly admitted to me that I reminded her of a character from one of her favorite movies. Can you guess which movie? When she said Gone with the Wind, I immediately knew my options were either Butterfly McQueen's character (can't remember the name) or Mammy. As I was overweight, I also immediately knew which role she would typecast me as.

I must have shown my shock when she uttered the "beloved" name. She truly believed I should have been flattered at the comparison. I let it go, biting my bitterness and shock. Still someone must have later clued her in about the insult because the next day she apologized stating that she didn't know she had mistakenly insulted me. She then bolstered the apology by saying she only thought of me that way because I was so nice and so "bosomy" that she felt like I was comforting. Yeah right. OK. 'Cause that's what I was there for.

Going back to the issue at hand, in cinematic history the mammy role was often interchanged with that of the black maid. Actresses Louise Beaver and Hattie McDaniel (the original Mammy) were often typecast as either and I can't really be mad at them because those were the roles that were mostly offered to African-American actresses during that time. Again, there is nothing wrong with being a maid or portraying one. But why did the producers of that time insist that the character be oversolicitous and all sacrificing? And in some cases racially demeaning? Again, it was a matter of audience entertainment and "comfortability." Many white audiences, for various reasons, wanted to believe that black women were truly as depicted. My former co-worker would have fit well in those audiences.

I'm wary whenever I watch movies from the early 20th century because I know many of them are rife with black stereotypes. However, I recall a couple of movies I saw many years ago where a particular black actress caught my attention. In both movies, the actress portrayed a maid; however, in both cases, the maid was depicted as well-spoken, dignified and dare I say it, attractive. It was as though the producers of those films hadn't received the memo that all black maids were supposed to speak in dialect, be overly solicitous, and treat her employers as though they were her own children. It is only recently that I discovered the name of the actress: Theresa Harris. To learn more about her check out her bio at and Wikipedia. I found more information about Ms. Harris from an article written by journalist Sherry Howard. The New York Times also wrote a bio on Harris.

I truly can't recall which movies I saw Ms. Harris in, only that she made a lasting impression on me even these years later. From reading her various bios, it seems that she, like Beaver and McDaniel, was often typecast as a domestic. However, Ms. Harris' elegant and dignified portrayal disproved those many years ago (and disproves even today) any mistaken belief that black maids had to be portrayed for laughs or overly servile so as not to upset the audience's comfort level.

Below is footage of one of Ms. Harris' non-domestic roles in which she sings "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home."

Here she is again (this time in "uniform") in Buck Benny Rides Again.

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Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 9/09/2011 10:23:00 AM Permanent Link     | | Home


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