Actress Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Academy Award, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” in 1940. As we all know, Mammy was an asexual, large slave. In reality, the actress who played her was well-off, celebrated, and had attained a level of achievement that most would envy. But the fact remains that McDaniel attained this position playing a servant who existed totally to exalt the white heroine. Her semi-literate self-presentation was ironically McDaniel’s means to attaining tremendous power. And sadly, Mammy is very much alive today as a deeply-entrenched stereotype that can empower black women who assume her form.
The list of Modern Day Mammies might surprise you. Seventy years after being given a prominent spot in the pantheon of movie-making, a black woman (or man) who is able to utilize the Mammy archetype will be highly successful, because general audiences just can’t get enough of Mammy in all her recurring forms. Who is raking in the dough?
Yes, Oprah is the richest black person in the world. But how did she acquire her riches? Would it be a stretch to draw a parallel between her helping role as the comforter of millions of white women and the image of Mammy helping Scarlet O’Hara face her life challenges? Oprah has only seen her popularity decline when she began to express her personal identity by publicly supporting President Obama and having the nerve to display her wealth.
In her breakout film “Bringing Down the House” (2003), Queen Latifah donned a maid uniform and served food with a “yes massa” smile on her face to appease the white character played by Steve Martin, because he did not want to have to explain to his friends why he had a black woman in his house. Within the confines of the narrative, Latifah expressed dismay at being forced into this role, and explained that she was only doing it to get from Martin’s character what she wanted. There could not have been a better illustration of why black women keep enacting the resurrection of Mammy. It is often the best role black women are offered. And it is made lucrative.
Perry is the only successful filmmaker today crafting complex black female images, but even in his work, we see Mammy alive and well. I love Tyler Perry movies, but that she-male Madea is clearly a gun-toting Mammy. I’m not mad at him. Mammy is literally a cash cow. Perry is to be applauded for using Mammy’s money to support black actresses who can rarely find work any other way by showcasing stars like Sharon Leal, Janet Jackson, and Kimberly Elise in his films. Through his efforts, black ingénues get some shine. But sadly, these beauties are dependent on Mammy for their survival, like that destructive mother-monster that just won’t go away.
Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe
This amazing actress is talented, pretty and truly has a beautiful spirit. When you contrast her sizzling aura to the illiterate, abused character of Precious, it is as though all the excellent qualities exhibited by her are intentionally distorted by Hollywood alchemy to transform her into that sad black female the mainstream loves to pity.
The issue is not whether these types of characters “really exist.” The concern is the extremely high percentage of characters that are promoted by the establishment that resemble Mammy despite the true diversity of the black female experience. Mammy thrives as a bearer of tragic circumstances who exalts those she serves – even if this service is an imaginary mechanism in the minds of theater goers who want a black woman they can look down on within the privacy of their own souls.
Why can’t Hollywood find resources to support our black ingénues?
We’ve always had our Lola Falanas, Lena Hornes, Fredi Washingtons, Nina Mae McKinneys and Dorothy Dandridges. Today we adore our Angela Bassetts, Nia Longs, Sanaa Lathans and Elise Neals. But today, like yesterday, these stars rarely make it to the screen. Some form of Mammy steals their thunder every time.
When they do find a role, an actress who defies the Mammy stereotype evokes the rage of general audiences. Take Zoe Saldana in the recent Star Trek remake. While it was a shock to see Saldana kiss Spock, there was a huge amount of outrage in the “Trekker” community over this. Uhura was seen as “attacking” Spock. Fans of the series refused to fathom that Spock could want Uhura – even as played by the stunner Saldana.
Will Mammy always be embraced, and the black ingénue spurned?
It’s hard to know how this battle between Mammy and ingénues will end. Mammy has been holding all the chips for almost a century. Black ingénues in Hollywood, while large in number, rarely get those breakout roles because they are not created. Halle Berry is one powerful black ingénue showing that Mammy is not in complete control. One can only hope that slowly but surely, things will continue to change so that more actresses will have greater space for personal expression.
Why is this important? People need to see beautiful, desirable black women as agents of their own destiny in films, not as helper-tools or victims. As heroes who enjoy happy endings. This is what white lead characters enjoy. People use films to develop their sense of what is possible in life, and how to understand another person’s humanity. If black women continue to be left outside the realm of positive, lead portrayals, we will be continually left out of society’s conception of what it means to be a valuable human being.
That is a conception that we have been left outside of for far too long. It is time for Mammy to die and be replaced with better images of black women. Will the public let these inspiring images take shape?