Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel famously said she would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one, after civil rights groups criticized the portrayal of black characters in Gone With The Wind. Seventy years later, The Help and Viola Davis are enmeshed in a similar controversy.
The Root has noted that "playing a maid seems to be a rite of passage for black actresses, from Hattie McDaniel to Whoopi to Oprah — even today." But is there a difference between playing a stereotypical Mammy, as McDaniel did, and what Davis and her co-stars are doing today? (The criticism of The Help — the novel was written by a white woman and the film was directed by a white man — has its own dedicated blog.
Davis, of course, believes there is, as she's repeated in all of the promotional interviews for the film this week, along with her co-star Octavia Spencer.
To The Los Angeles Times:
Spencer: There are a lot of people who don't like the idea of us playing maids without knowing anything about the story. Not knowing how proactive these women are in their community and how they are propagating change.
Davis: They don't care. It's the fact that we are playing maids. It's the image and the message more so than the execution.
Did that give you pause before signing on?
In Entertainment Weekly:
"That's what people bristle at: the maids," Davis says in a no-holds-barred interview. "I've played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids." Spencer is even more emphatic. "It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?' I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—ing performance of her life.'"
Davis expressed more ambivalent to Essence:
"Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you've ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it's not a good message to send to Black people?"
Or about black people, one might add. The issue, of course, isn't just playing a maid — it would be inaccurate to erase black women who worked as domestics from history — but how that maid is portrayed and whether her represented humanity goes beyond what McDaniel and countless other actresses were given to portray.