In February 2012, PBS host Tavis Smiley interviewed Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer about their Oscar nominations for their roles as Aibileen and Minny, Jim Crow–era domestic workers in The Help. “I’m pulling for both of you to win on Academy Award night,” Smiley ventured. “But there’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid”—a reference to the actor who won for her role as Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. “I want you to win,” Smiley concluded, “but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.”
Davis countered that it is hard for black actresses to find multifaceted roles in Hollywood, and that pressure from the black community to eschew portrayals that are not heroic makes it even harder: “That very mind-set that you have, and that a lot of African-Americans have, is absolutely destroying the black artist…. If your criticism is that you just don’t want to see the maid...then I have an issue with that. Do I always have to be noble?”
For black women, particularly those in the public eye, the answer to this question is often a resounding “Yes.” They are required to be noble examples of black excellence. To be better. To be respectable. And the bounds of respectability are narrowly defined by professional and personal choices reflecting the social mores of the majority culture—patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and middle class.
Spencer ended up taking home an Oscar later that month for Best Supporting Actress (Davis lost to Meryl Streep for Best Actress), but Smiley had articulated a discomfort many in the black community felt about their big-screen roles. For all its popularity and acclaim, The Help illustrates that Hollywood still filters (and distorts) the lives and histories of minorities through the eyes of the majority; celebrates white saviors; and, 72 years post-Mammy, is still more comfortable casting black women as maids than as prime ministers, action heroes, or romantic leads.
Where Smiley trod lightly, some people have been more explicit in their criticism of Davis and Spencer. In an open letter to Davis on the film-industry site Indiewire, black filmmaker Tanya Steele wrote, “Currently, the vanguard of black culture is still healing wounds from their past. Wounds that racism has created, wounds that drive you to gain acceptance in the larger culture. The acknowledgment comes in the form of a paycheck, exposure, star status, acceptance. An acceptance that is more important than our legacy. Isn’t it that simple? How else could a black woman…take the role?”
Much-needed criticisms of The Help and the characters of Aibileen and Minny have come from sources like the Association of Black Women Historians, which, in its own open letter, challenged various aspects of the book and film, including misrepresentations of elements of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. But there is something else floating in the ether: the idea that the role of a maid is simply too ignoble for a 21st-century black actress. That idea is merely respectability politics at work.