Fitting and timely recognition of the late Esther Rolle posted today on The Hollywood Reporter, considering today’s release of the polarizing Viola Davis feature film, The Help.
The piece reminded me of a survey I posted back in April titled Thinking Of “The Help”… Films Exploring Black Maid/White Employer Relationship, in which I asked you all to name films in cinema history that focused specifically on the black maid/white female employer relationship, told intentionally from the maid’s POV, or, at least, gives us a complete and complex representation of her.
The were few responses, because there have been so few films that fit the criteria. I mentioned Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire De (aka Black Girl) as a good example, to start things off.
No that The Hollywood Reporter piece adds much to satisfy, but it does alert the reader to a film in which Esther Rolle co-starred in, titled Summer Of my German Soldier, set during WWII, in which she plays a housekeeper to a young 13-year-old Southern Jewish girl caught in a doomed relationship with a German soldier.
I haven’t seen the film, which was based on a book of the same name; this is the first I’m actually hearing about it. It was a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1978 on NBC.
The Hollywood Reporter didn’t care for it though, calling the material promising, but the script weak, and that the film failed to live up to expectations.
I’ll have to give this one a look. Apparently, Rolle’s role (“a loving housekeeper who becomes the girl’s only confidante“) was meaty and solid enough that she won an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Limited Series Or Special category.
But good luck finding it on home video, where it only exists in VHS format. I couldn’t even find a proper trailer or clips of it.
THR does mention Rolle’s career highlight, though it would be playing yet another domestic (prior to the above movie) – this time as maid Florida Evans on the early/mid 1970s comedy sitcom Maude, and its spinoff Good Times – a role that she’ll likely always be remembered for.
She would eventually leave Good Times because, as THR notes, she took issue with Jimmie Walker’s J.J. portrayal, saying that she did not “agree to do a clown show to degrade young black men.” And this was after she already expressed reservations about continuing on with the series after husband James (played by John Amos) was killed in a car accident, because it would mean the family would go on without a father, which didn’t jive with her original attraction to the series was – the presentation of a black family lead by a strong black father.
Aaahhh yes… there goes that whole burden of representation thing popping up again… except this was over 30 years ago.