Subversive Subservience: Exploring the History of Black Servitude in Hollywood

Sophia Dorval


For the past two years, television audiences on both sides of the pond have been enthralled by the hit UK historical series Downton Abbey.  Much like the Victorian times in which the show began, this digital age is one where perception and “reality” are one and the same; so it's no surprise that viewers are glued to the daily dramas of the wealthy, glamorous, and hopelessly myopic Crawley family.  In the age of government shutdowns and the ongoing global recession, it also isn’t shocking that there has been just as much fascination with the lives of the staff who have no choice but to live to serve them.  Kitchen maid Daisy’s wedding to second footman William just before he went off to fight in World War I drew just as much attention as Mary and Matthew finally taking their long anticipated walk down the aisle. 


Seemingly following the trend on American soil, Devious Maids, a telenovela-inspired primetime soap (produced by Marc Cherry and Eva Longoria) about the rich and powerful in California and the lives of the Hispanic domestics who tend to them, premiered this past summer to serious buzz and boasted a cast that had already proven themselves on other critically acclaimed and popular series such as Scrubs, Ugly Betty, Without A Trace, and Heroes.  The fact that this was the first primetime drama with an all Latina lead cast was largely obscured by the controversy it drew from critics who complained of Hollywood focusing on Hispanics solely as illegal immigrants and maids rather than as professionals. 


Writing for the Huffington Post in the May 3, 2013 article Eva Longoria’s Devious Maids Is A Wasted Opportunity,  Tanisha L. Ramirez states “…Aren’t Latina teachers’, doctors’, CEOs’, and entrepreneurs’ stories worth telling, as well?”  In her May 7, 2013 response op-ed There Is No Such Thing As A Wasted Opportunity  for the same website, Longoria herself stated that, “The only way to break a stereotype is to not ignore it.  The stereotype we are grappling with here is that as Latinas, all we are is maids.  And yet, this is a show that deconstructs the stereotype by showing us that maids are so much more.”  The series’ initial airing brought in 2 million viewers and has since been renewed by Lifetime for a second season.    Yet the reaction to the series begs the question:  Are audiences only comfortable watching relationships between servants and their masters if the stories are from a far away and supposedly enchanted time?


Also ongoing for the past few years has been the current black servitude trend in mainstream cinema that has made millions for Hollywood; far more than work by indie directors such as Middle of Nowhere’s Ava Duvernay, Pariah’s Dee Rees, Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler, and far more than mainstream black releases such as Baggage Claim and The Best Man Holiday are expected to make at theaters this fall.   A-list talent such as Viola Davis and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker have received major leading roles playing maids and butlers in both The Help and The Butler. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is also expected to be a contender for the Academy Award for his portrayal of Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave, about a Black man who was born free only to be kidnapped and sold into slavery as an adult.

It would appear that as usual, what's old is new again.   Yet even by modern Hollywood standards, the mere act of humanizing Black domestic characters who were denied lines and had long stood silently in the shadows of white stars in countless iconic films including Father of The Bride, is revolutionary.   While they may appear to simply be masculine and feminine versions of each other:  Both focus on changing attitudes regarding race in American society, and both focus on generational and cultural divides between parents and their offspring.   But The Help and The Butler approach the complicated relationship between black servitude and white privilege in radically different ways. 


Needless to say, gender played a profound role in how black domestics experienced and dealt with living in an openly racist society.  While even respectable white mothers were expected to engage in household duties while having black maids a la Mad Men’s Betty Draper and Carla, black men were infantilized every time they served white patrons.   Maids most likely had the “luxury”of being called their given names, while their male counterparts remained in a perpetual state of youth as eternal “boys.”  So it’s needless to say that gender also affects how the stories of The Help’s Aibileen and Minny and The Butler’s Cecil Gaines are told. 


The Help owes as much to Legally Blonde as it does to The Blind Side in regards to the fact that it is yet another modern-day “chick flick” with mild feminist overtones.  In its own sepia-toned way, it is largely a film about the power of raising feminist consciousness.  Despite the poor characterization of most of the white female characters, save for Skeeter, the range of female personalities is an embarrassment of riches compared to the number of females portrayed in The Butler.  In contemporary feminist fashion, The Help makes female servitude look like the prison it was.  In true Disney fashion, the only aspect of black female servitude it ennobled was the raising of the white children, as shown through Aibileen’s bond with her boss Elizabeth Leefolt’s neglected daughter Mae Mobley.  


The contrasting ways in which Minny and Aibileen are portrayed as they toil to help keep white femininity intact is enlightening. Aibileen is a woman so divorced from the process of wishing and hoping that she doesn’t even utter her prayers aloud and suffers the death of her son Treelore in silence.   That coupled with the fact that she continues to find the good in the white children she raises, despite knowing they will most likely grow up to be as racist as her employers, would make her a heroine in any film at any time.  Yet in the days of Imitation of Life and even the days of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Minny’s “terrible awful” stunt of feeding her former employer Hilly Holbrook a chocolate pie laced with fecal matter as personal payback for firing her would most assuredly have made her a villain and not a heroine in another film about black maids.  But in the noughties her “sass-mouthing” and her mistrust of whites falls under current stereotypical portrayals of black women.  Her fear of Celia’s husband Johnny harming her upon finding her in his home is also played as comic relief when it inevitably happens.

The issue that isn’t fully explored in the film is how the white characters both take credit and profit off of their inexpensive black labor.  Society gives Skeeter’s mother credit for raising her when it was clear that Constantine did the work, Aibileen’s contributions to Elizabeth Leefolt’s daughter will also inevitably be forgotten.  Skeeter builds her writing career, first by using Aibileen’s advice for her Miss Myrna newspaper column and later off of the experiences of the black maids in the town who won’t receive recognition for risking their livelihoods to help her.   At least Celia and Minnie were equally complicit in the lie of Celia suddenly becoming a Southern cooking expert. 


By contrast, women do not play a major role or fare very well in The Butler.  Director Lee Daniels’ treatment of Cecil’s wife Gloria is delicate at best.  The pain and loneliness she endures from having a husband who is at the beck and call of the tenants of the White House instead of her isn’t entirely given short shrift.  However it’s troubling to note that the audience almost never sees Cecil and Gloria happy.  We never see their first initial meeting, the way they fell in love with each other, or hear any of the promises Cecil must have made to his betrothed if she agreed to marry him.  The audience really has to do the work of connecting her alcoholism and her extramarital affairs to the pain of living an unfulfilled life and being on the outskirts of the most privileged people in the Western world.  It's the harsh reality of American racism and classism being magnified in her personal life.  Yet it's portrayed instead as intrinsic black dysfunction without Gloria ever having a chance to explain her actions which has been Lee Daniels' bread and butter since Precious


The portrayal of their activist son Louis’ girlfriend Carol is also eyebrow-raising.  When they first meet as students at Fisk University, she is considered a worthy companion for him while enduring the cruel hatred they experience at sit-ins and freedom rides when clad in a poodle skirt with straightened hair.  But their innocent first love is doomed when they join the Black Panthers and she proceeds to reject Western beauty and relationship ideals by embracing both her natural hair at Cecil and lack of manners at Gloria’s dinner table. 


This could have been a great opportunity to discuss how generational differences affected black women when they embraced leftist ideology.  That these women were seen as a threat not just to polite white American society, but also to their black elders who held firm to their more traditional values.  The audience present during the screening of the film were in stitches upon seeing Gloria refer to her son’s paramour as a “trifling, low-class bitch”.  So it definitely didn’t come as a shock later to viewers that both Carol and the Black Panthers were reduced to being murderous and consumed by vengeance without any context for their reactionary views.  The slap that Gloria gives Louis after he derides his father’s profession as his visit with his parents comes to a dramatic end is referred to by Professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. as “the instance of a banishing of a black radical imagination.”

While The Help, similar to other recent films such as The Women, and Mother and Child have eschewed having major male characters in favor of hiring large female casts, the portrayal, or lack thereof, of black men in the film is disquieting.  Black men are either shown as aggressors in the case of Minnie’s unseen abusive husband Leroy, or victims, as in the case of Aibileen’s son and the civil rights activist Medgar Evers.  The only black men allowed lines in the film are the waiter Henry, who is remembered mostly for fleeing from potential harm, and of course, the staple of all black films, the preacher whose sermon inspires Aibileen to help Skeeter with the book.


 What is truly groundbreaking about The Butler is its portrayal of a black father and son relationship and how it weathers a massive cultural divide through America's changing racial landscape.  It is more than stating the obvious by saying that mainstream cinema is well and truly starved for these kinds of stories.  Cecil's arc, transitioning from viewing his son as a rabblerousing thug to seeing him as the trailblazing unsung activist that he truly was is profound and one of the most redeeming aspects of the film. 


Both movies also reveal the systemic nature of racism in America by how they portray two major civil rights era tragedies:  The lynching of Emmett Till and the assassination of Medgar Evers.  In The Butler, the murder of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till’s subsequent activism is mentioned in passing by Gloria to set up the brewing tension within the Gaines family regarding civil rights activism.  Cecil and Gloria have naturally convinced themselves that no longer living in the South and playing by the white man’s rules will guarantee their family security and safety.  Louis remains silent all the while, keeping his opinions, what the audience knows to be the truth, to himself. 


The Help handles Medgar Evers’ assassination in a truthful and tasteful fashion.   One minute Aibileen and Henry are riding home from work on the bus and the next minute, they are forced to get off the bus and walk home, only knowing that “some nigger” has been shot, unaware of what horror could befall them as they try to get home on foot.  Just the simple decision of the bus driver to protect the lives of the white riders rather than the lives of all the passengers on the bus reveals the ubiquity of racial bias in the South. 


The Butler takes things one step further by showing how the American presidents are almost interchangeable symbols of white privilege in its ultimate bastion:  the White House.  Unbeknownst to them, its temporary tenants all have a touch of the Dowager Countess living inside them.  Eisenhower’s inability to understand that Cecil’s experience growing up on a cotton farm wasn’t quite the same as his upbringing on a farm, Jackie Kennedy ignoring Cecil’s pleas to help her in any way he could on the day of her husband’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Tourette’s like use of the word “nigger” in front of his cabinet and staff, and of course Reagan’s shortsightedness regarding race relations in post Civil Rights America aren’t subtly alluded to as they may have been had this film been made in another time, or possibly by a white filmmaker. 


It would be remiss not to discuss another thing these two blockbuster films have in common:  The issue of white validation of black points of view.  Cecil’s arc regarding his son Louis doesn’t occur until the 1980s while serving President Reagan.  It takes him hearing Reagan’s advisers connect the struggle of the South African anti-apartheid activists to the work that people like his son were involved in to truly begin the journey of understanding his son. The very basis of The Help is a white woman validating the struggle of the black domestics in Jackson, Mississippi.  Whether it’s a moment as small as Skeeter politely instructing Aibileen on how to address her in her home, or the glaringly tragic fact that the Harper & Row editor Miss Stein doesn’t feel the book about the black domestics’ experience is complete without Skeeter’s fond appraisal of her childhood maid Constantine.  Even in death, Constantine isn’t allowed to speak for herself.  


The Butler is essentially a character study of a man who loved his superiors and his wife more than he loved himself because he could never forgive himself for his perceived role in his father's brutal death.  The Help is a feel-good, revisionist coming-of-age film centered on a young white woman's liberation that downplays the means by which she frees herself from a life of middle class drudgery.   Both films in order to have mass appeal sell the lie that racism is a thing of America's past, not present, akin to artifacts such as saddle shoes and George Washington's wooden false teeth.  Similar to Ramirez’ complaints on Devious Maids, Orville Lloyd Douglas states in the September 12, 2013 Guardian article Why I Won't Be Watching The Butler and 12 Years A Slave that “These movies present a false narrative that life is so much better for black people now.  It is true that progress has indeed taken place.  Black people don't have to sit at the back of the bus and are no longer slaves.  However, there are so many stories that need to be told about the black life experience beyond two specific eras in black history.”     


Anyone merely glancing at the blogosphere in recent months knows that Douglas isn’t the only black filmgoer suffering from fatigue, boredom, or indifference to the current black servitude trend.  But questions still abound.  Is Eva Longoria correct in saying that the only way to break stereotypes are by facing them and deconstructing them?  Do The Butler and The Help succeed in accomplishing this feat? 


After having watched both films, one doesn’t get the sense that in another time and another place, Minny’s cooking skills would have made her a restaurateur, or that Cecil’s knowledge of liqueurs would have given him his own bar one day.  Also, given how lucrative both films have been for Hollywood, it is unlikely that they will open the door for other black filmmakers to tell more present-day tales to filmgoers of all races.  It is the movie business, after all.  Like the musical biopic trend that preceded it, there will most likely be another provocative trend to greenlight stories with major black characters.  Here’s hoping the next trend doesn’t involve another hackneyed line about picking cotton. 


Author Bio:

Sophia Dorval is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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