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?

Oprah Winfrey
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.

Queen Latifah
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.

Tyler Perry
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?

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  • Hidi

    This post is really interesting and brings up some points.

    “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?”

    Yes, there is a possibility but I do not think it is happening anytime soon.Why? too much bikering among black folks and movie ticket numbers don’t lie. LOL

    You know…everything is a stereotype. What would be the better images of black women??? The educated one…most have seen the news reporting and read the articles of educated black women not being worthy enough of marriage, which is ridiculous. Or the married one who always tries to be the husband instead of the wife, what every that means. We all know this is not true. Same thing goes for sistas from the hood. No all of them are the uneducated no manner having baby mama type. Guess what, most of those black professional married women are from the hood. LOL
    I don’t think living your life from the perspective of “oh, I hope I am not perpetuating a stereotype”is a good idea. People are always going to try to find a way to put you in a category, so focusing on self growth for oneself is better.

    All I am saying erasing one stereotype is not going to make things better; this introduces the “single story”, which is not good. We are not a monolithic group of people. We are diverse from physical features to languages. The real problem is there is a lack of diversity of black images on screen. Diversity is what we need and we are more than “hood” or “bougie”.

    By the way, I enjoyed watching Girlfriends but that show was stereotypical. How? Joan was educated and a lawyer, but she could never marry. The other characters were stereotypical too, but they were all diverse characters. This proves my point that everything is a stereotype. LOL

  • Mloren

    Just a note: Queen Latifah starred in “Chicago” as Mama Morton before “Bringing Down the House” the following year. She was oscar nominated for her role in “Chicago.” So I would argue that this was her breakout role…especially when comparing the caliber and reception of the two films. Chicago put her on the map as an actress and brought her into a broader socio-cultural conciousness. In retrospect, I dont think BDH did much to boost her career.

    On another note: I agree that roles for Black women need to be indebted with greater agency. But I think it should be more than just about a dispersion between ingenues and mamies. I wouldn’t hope to be relegated to either role; the pretty wife and sassy mama are hackneyed archetypes. Black women are more multi dimensional that. All women are more multi dimensional than that.

    • Alexis G. Stodghill

      I agree that “Chicago” was a very important role for Latifah, but to me it is part of the Mammy image. She was a helper and supporter of the white characters who literally called her a name similar to Mammy. It’s a wonderful role, but still rather similar to Mammy in many ways to me.

      I think “Bringing Down the House” was a general audience block buster in a way “Chicago” was not. I also think that “Bringing Down the House” is the film that gave Latifah the power to “carry” a film — as in be the sole star that can open a film successfully and sustain its promotion. In “Chicago” she was a wonderful ensemble player, but just that.

      Again, I am in no way criticizing Latifah. She has had an amazing, long and diverse career, taking every little step, from the tiny role in which she had no words at all in “Jungle Fever,” to working on television on sit coms and as a talk show host, to working her way up in Hollywood from ensemble player to megastar. She has earned every bit of the praise she deserves. I am talking more about the PUBLIC being more comfortable with larger black women in a helping role, and the power actresses have who harness this comfort level.

  • Hopefully there will come a day when some us will learn that our worth is not determined or influenced by a character that one plays or an audience that one captures. In my teens it was Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carrol who were once nominated for Academy Awards for what some perceived as stereotypical black characters who met the same disdain from black folk, now come 2010, Monique and Gabby are enduring the same black wrath. God forbid that they lose, then the haters will be finally vindicated and elated with pure joy.

    I’m sure it was the same thing for my mother in the 1940’s and beyond. Those who know very little about their own “STORY” will believe all that is written without regards to the era and what these women had to endure before Hollywood and America became more accommodating of Black people to include black actresses.

    Maybe if the majority of African Americans or whatever you refer to yourselves as- would stop looking for validation, acceptance, inclusion and love from everyone else, you’d have in your own hearts and these types of conversations,lists and topics wouldn’t come up. Having this list of prominent African American women and the role Tyler Perry plays,Medea based only on their physical characteristics does not serve to advance us as women, but only serves as a continued division among us.

    You may not like any of the characters they have played, but yours is only an opinion and you know the statement. So here’s my honest opinion because I’ve got one also. What some of you perceive as servitude basically is not, but a way for these type to persevere in spite of the realities they faced. It was “The Mammy” who endured whatever indignities after years of servitude who has given back to our communities in the forms of money and educational opportunities ahead of her own. It is “The Mammy” who knows that to have a myopic view of the world is also a “career killer” which doesn’t open up avenues of success to you and is a limitation and a label she does not wear.

    Maybe if you did a little research you’d also find out how those you may think of as “the ingenue” also served as the “concubine” stereotype in that painful past of American History we often like to dredge up by telling half-truths, who still happens to receive the largest amount of admiration and adoration from many people today based solely on their looks. Those who exhibit what you perceive as “The Mammy” stereotype don’t receive anything but constant ridicule and criticism from people to especially their own, while often gaining the highest amount of influence.

    While I admire the hues that women of African descent possess, these are the types of alienation’s that will never unify us as a people. I’ll take influential, intelligence, aspirational and inspiring over beauty any day of the week. One thing that I’ve learned that when we attempt to malign others, it really is the individual talking about themselves. Some people criticize exactly who they are-you know the mirror image effect- it takes one to know one adage.

    What I’m getting from all of this negativity pertaining to these women being winners and nominated for Academy Awards is that some people still don’t know how to separate fiction from reality. I’ll support Tyler Perry or any other producer of Black entertainment just as long as he employs black men and women. I’m smart enough to know that the black man and woman is not a one dimensional character but are varied individuals that encompass every tier there is.

    In the words of the great Hattie McDaniel who once stated, “it’s better to play a maid or mammy than to be one. “Who knew that “Mammy” was the modern name or label black women call over achieving black women who they think are sell-outs? What have many of you done that will propel our community to the top other than criticize the accomplishments of others?

  • Great article with good parallels, between today and the past. I like when you said : “Today we adore our Angela Bassetts, Nia Longs, Sanaa Lathans and Elise Neals.” cause its so true the actresses are rarely seen today they had their hay day back in the 90s and early 2000-2003 but they can still make come backs they’re not totally gone.

  • cherish

    That’s the typical aspects of a mammy: heavyset, donning du-rag, fed up, loud voice, and catering to the White man.