Thoughts on a research seminar by PhD student Renée Landell, on 'The Human, the Nonhuman and the Superhuman in Anglophone Caribbean Neo-Slave Narratives' .
On October 11, 2023 I listened in to a research seminar by PhD student Renée Landell, on ‘The Human, the Nonhuman and the Superhuman in Anglophone Caribbean Neo-Slave Narratives’ . A weighty topic but one that Renée made more engaging both by the absorbing content and by her engaging delivery. I was especially struck by her discussion of ‘Mammy’ stereotype. When I was growing up the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ was shown on TV every Christmastime for over a decade. Why RTE thought that a film about the antebellum South was especially festive is anyone’s guess. But I duly watched the film every time it screened. (in my defence we only had two TV channels) ‘Gone with the Wind’ (GWTW) had a ‘Mammy’ character called, imaginatively,
‘Mammy’, who was played by the actress Hattie McDaniel. As Ms Landell explained the ‘Mammy’ character, was a stereotype of an older, black woman who was charged to take care of her slaveowner’s children and depicted as being content to spend her life in slavery and servitude to her white slaveowners. This description fits with the character depicted by Hattie McDaniel in GWTW. The character is portrayed as content with being enslaved and stays with the family even after the American Civil War has ended. No mention is made of the character’s own children, wider family or family history.
Hattie Mc Daniels won an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress in 1940 and it’s perhaps telling that the Academy were happy to award an Oscar for a role where an African American woman was shown as being content in her servitude and subjugation. The Mammy stereotype has, over time, been subverted and reappropriated by African American filmmakers, most recently with director/actor Tyler Perry’s series of films with the ‘Madea’ character. And yet the African American actress Octavia Spencer, who has three times been nominated for an Academy Award, has played the character of maid, cleaner or nurse a total of twenty one times on film. Overt racism or unconscious racial bias? Either way, perhaps on some level the stereotype of the ‘Mammy’ still exists.
If the cinematic portrayal of African American women has been reductive and limited, the portrayal of African American men in film was worse. Starting with the film ‘Birth of a Nation’ in 1915, black men were portrayed as being a physical and sexual threat to white women. This depiction had changed by the 1960s but even in films like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962) the ‘white saviour’ stereotype is played out, whereby it’s the white man (Atticus Finch) who attempts to ‘save’ the falsely accused black man, Tom Robinson. This idea of of the white saviour exists even in later films like ‘A Time to Kill’ from 1996. And a female version of the ‘white saviour’ is shown in the 2011 film ‘The Help’.
The blaxplotation films of the 1970s were an attempt to move away from this narrative and portray black men ( and women) as having agency and control of their own destiny. But these films also came under fire from the black community for indulging in stereotyped depictions of black men as drug dealers and pimps.
Directors Spike Lee and the late John Singleton have both made films about the black experience, in particular about racial tensions in the US. This mantle has passed to more recent film directors such as Jordan Peele and Ava du Vernay.