Hmmm… the hullabaloo over the film adaptation of The Help, starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and others, since its trailer was released earlier this week, inspired the content of this post – specifically, it all got me thinking about films in cinema history that have dealt directly with the tenuously symbiotic, strained relationship between black maids and their white employers, which goes back centuries and crosses borders.
Note, I’m not talking about films in which there are black maids as peripheral/supporting characters, but rather films that, again, deal with that specific relationship, and/or the effects felt by the maids especially, or that tell the story from the maid’s POV, not from their white employers. So, I wouldn’t necessarily include many of the films that feature Hattie McDaniels’ sassy, bossy maid roles, because I don’t think they fit the above criteria; while she was certainly a presence, the films were never really about her, or told from her POV, becoming essentially a cinematic caricature and stereotype. I haven’t seen every single film she’s played a maid in, so there might be one that does fit. If so, I’m sure someone will say so.
However, Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire De (aka Black Girl) most certainly does belong on the list; although I’d say the film is about more than just this deceptively simple story of a Senegalese maid; it’s rich with symbolism and complexities that are essentially reactions to, and analysis of, the cultural legacy of colonialism. But I’ll put it on the list. It really captures her everyday mundaneness and monotony, and the resulting mental anguish she suffers, leading to its fatal conclusion.
So, chime in folks… the subject is, again, films in cinema history that focus specifically on the black maid/white employer relationship, told intentionally from the maid’s POV, or, at least, give us a complete and complex representation of her. Let’s see what kind of list we can come up with here. We might actually come to find out the The Help may be one of the more revolutionary examples in the group, as hyperbolic as that might sound; because I don’t believe that particular relationship, despite how present it is in real life, has ever really been examined and explored in front of a camera lens.