Should Black Actors Take Degrading Black Hollywood Roles?

Hattie McDaniel with Oscar Award photo

The question is the debate.  For many, it seem that black folks are  being unreasonable, thinking that our black actors and actresses should only play roles that speak truth to power and uplift us as a people.  We are being unrealistic, thinking that our actors should only play roles that teach us about  of all the positive things that we have accomplished in this country in spite of slavery and racism.   All the ruckus that we are raising about “The Help” may be proof to some that we are perpetually overemotional and unable to roll with the punches of life.   After all, REAL life is so much more nuanced than those flat, boring black history films, and the real life of black pathos is the most interesting of all cinematic pathos.  Black pain – it’s the stuff of the best movies that Hollywood can create.

I’ve read many reviews about The Help, and from what I could gather from the comments section, this depiction IS what life for black people actually happened!  Black people DID work as domestics, they WERE relegated to the bottom of the totem pole in every area of American culture, so why are they (the blacks) giving all that flak for this movie simply showing this from the white perspective?  OMG!  Why complain – Viola’s a great actress portraying a sidekick maid, and she’s getting P.A.I.D.!    Even your Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win the coveted Oscar back in 1939 once famously said:

I’d rather play a maid than be one.
Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?
If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.

Let me tell you why we complain, bitch and moan.  Most of us feel that too often, black pathology, black servitude and black degradation at the hands of whites is ALL that gets on the silver screen!  After all, we black folks have to look at those films, and we are sick to death of this one sided analysis of our story, to say the least.  We feel that there must be balance in order for there to be truth.  If maids and whores and pimps is all that is shown of the black experience, then the truth is not being told, and it doesn’t matter how brilliantly the black actors play the character.

As an aside, I read this review by Bob Cashill of PopDose:

“…The back-and-forth generated by this not-so-innocuous innocuous movie looks set to continue through Oscar season, with Davis and Spencer the likely recipients of end-of-year nominations. Here I part ways with the ABWH, which praised their “stellar performances.” They’re not. Good as they can be (and Davis is a stellar performer, right up there with Cicely Tyson, whose ghostly presence, so strong in the 70s and so seemingly sapped now, haunts the movie) they each have one note to play in The Help–Davis resignation, Spencer sassiness–and they do so with workmanlike efficiency…”

The Spook Who Sat By The Door

Black folks have no trouble with showing the spectrum of our humanity–the good, bad and ugly.  We simply want the GOOD to be shown equally!  That’s the issue, Hollywood is only interested in the “bad” and the “ugly”, never in the “good”, which we are desperately in need of seeing!  We could easily tolerate all these Mighty Whitey films if we could see more  Spooks Who Sat By the Door films, or even some Roots and Soul Food!  Shoot, we would take 4 Mighty Whiteys for 1 Spook and be satisfied!  We aint greedy!  I’m just sayin’.

For every coon, jiggaboo, pimp and mammy, we want to see a freedom fighter,  married black couple in love after 40 yrs, children who are interested in higher education, intelligent blacks empowered to move their lives forward, and black people who are able to deal with their lives in general.  We would love to see films with black folks relating to our latino, asian and arabic brethren, as we do in real life.  Is that really too much to ask?


As for our black actresses and actors:  We know they go through a huge amount to develop their acting skills.  We know they have to be the best to even be considered, and they are always the last hired and first fired.  So when a part comes for shuck and jive Willie, or kiss yo ass Mamie, what shoud they do?  Should they take the part, since they don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing their roles, the way others do?  Or should they hold out for positive roles?  How should they deal with this dilemma of always being offered the perpetual Hollywood pimp or whore?

I think that they can go the route of people like Tim Reid and Robert Townsend.  Black actors and actresses have to band together and create their own studios, and production companies.  They have to do the hard work involved in this, just as Tim and Robert had to, so they can create a body of film that’s worth watching.   That’s the price to pay for a black actor in America, if you want to be relevant to black people.  Otherwise, you can just play another anachronistic maid, pimp or player, told from a Hollyweird perspective.

Frank’s Place by Tim Reid 1987- episode: Frank is asked to make good on his late father’s gambling debts video

Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle 1987-episode Black Acting School

BTW,  Hattie McDaniel’s acting career went downward after Gone With the Wind, according to IMDb.   In her parts as maids, each successive one was a bit more assertive than the last, culminating with her maid/mammy portrayal in Gone With The Wind, where they say, “…in a number of ways, she is superior to the white folks surrounding her.”   Hmmm…

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh, God no. Hell no. Not anymore. It’s 2011 and the excuse is played.

    Bloggers have been talking about the rise of the web series format, which allows POC to cast, write, and direct their own people with help from fan funding, thereby bypassing Hollywhite altogether.

    Shows like “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and “Ktown Cowboys” have shown us that we don’t need HollyWTF. So our artists need to grow up, do some hard work and stop giving us roles we end up writing blog after blog after blog complaining about.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      I knew you was coming, dear Sis! Yes Ma’am!! I agree with you 250%

    2. @you says:

      I’ve never heard of the “Ktown Cowboys”. Thanks I was looking for new web series, since “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” won’t be premiering episode 12 until January the 12th.

  2. I do think that the actors/actresses should be more respectful of the art. One reason I feel that way is because, whenever I hear them speak, they say they are artist. I being an artist in the paint media, kinda resent them using the word…ARTIST ARE SPECIAL PEOPLE, with a special gift of expression. Many of the actors I see in black roles are court jesters and fools, I even respect that…what you see is what you get, and I see places for fools in pictures. If that is their talent to be the fool, I say BE THE FOOL, and be good at it, but never should they try to put their names on the roles of artist. Also these so call writers, directors and producers should be more creative and think…There are many different roles in life(REAL LIFE) we can play other than gangbanging and other mess I hear about…Remake, BODY AND SOUL, TAPROOT…get real with it!

  3. Mark says:

    Well I think that what you have here is a dominant culture who has an obsessive need to see black people in certain roles and a secondary culture who is all too willing to fill that need. One of the reasons that black people will identify with the projected representations is a cycle since the white superiority dynamic that runs America was developed by breaking down the cultures of the enslaved.

    See, I think that because of the blending of the different tribes as well as the harrowing journey to reach these shores, you have a group of people who were never able to identify with each other to come up with a unifying image. In other minority groups in this country you can see the ‘line’ that connects them not only to each other but all the way back to the country of their birth. Black people give lip service to the notion of being from ‘kings and queens’ but do scant research about their homeland. I don’t think that scholarship is any less available but it is certainly something that we don’t encourage within our community.

    It is easy to justify actions that play well with the ideals for the dominant culture because it works both ends… weakens ours and poisons our groups while enriching and strengthening theirs… I still to this day by blacks in my age group draw quizzical looks when I say or do something that runs counter to the orthodoxy that says ‘black people don’t do like or do stuff like that… that is for non-black/white folks!

    As a collective we still do not have control of what ‘we’ are, which is how the media can be used to sell and thereby manipulate the way we see ourselves. It would be nice to think that a group of powerful and well-funded ‘brothers and sisters’ exist and would be willing to serve as a vanguard for us in media, but the question is would we support the movement? ‘Frank’s Place’ was a criminally underwatched television show and while shows like ‘Amen’ and ‘227’ live on in reruns on TVOne, I don’t think that shows with the quality and the image that ‘Frank’ showed is the kind of show ‘we’ are conditioned to see AND believe. It takes far less thinking to believe the crap like ‘The Help’, a story of black women and how they interacted with whites from a white persons point of view. There is a need for whites to re-write history and change the conversation of their relationship with ‘us’ because of a fear that we could realize our political and social power, especially since we can be roused to vote for a president..!

    Sorry for hijacking your post… just got me to running off at the mouth, exposing all that I don’t know..!

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Hi Brother! You didn’t hijack the post, I appreciate sharing ideas and spirited discussion! Keep coming with it!

      “…Black people give lip service to the notion of being from ‘kings and queens’ but do scant research about their homeland. I don’t think that scholarship is any less available but it is certainly something that we don’t encourage within our community.”

      I have to disagree with you, brother. I think it depends on the type of person you’re dealing with. Not all black folks are interested in history, but that can be said about white folks as well. Then there are those who are, and we do tons of research. Then there are other black folks who are interested in education, those interested in the history of black music, etc in a number of different subjects. So although some may not be interested in one subject, it could be that they’re interested in another, which is normal I’d say.

      I did a post about the Gullah Geechee blacks of South Carolina, and their culture. Their language, which is a brilliant amalgam of all the languages of the different tribes that were forced together, plus some english and french is proof that those black folks overcame the brutality of being captured, middle passage and the brutal slavery, to create a brand new black culture, after all this is what humans do and have done! Unfortunately, white folks misunderstood and called this brilliance ignorance, due to their own arrogant ignorance. Many of those same black folks became embarassed as well. Anyway, check it all out, brother Mark!

  4. Reggie says:

    There’s a big part of me that says that if I were an actor, that I wouldn’t take a role like this. However, they’re called “starving actors” for a reason. If they don’t work, they starve. So to be honest……….who knows what I would do, least of all me.

    I like to eat.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      That’s the dilemma right there.

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