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Role Of Maids Dusts Up Trouble For 'The Help'


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Going into this Sunday's Academy Awards, there's a lot of buzz about "The Help." That's the movie about black domestic workers in segregated Jackson, Mississippi, set in the 1960s. The movie was a hit, much like the bestselling book it's based on. And performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer received rapturous reviews. Both are now up for Oscars. But even as many African-Americans celebrate that honor, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports some are not thrilled with the roles that earned the nominations.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: By now, millions of moviegoers have heard this mantra. It's from a black maid who's trying to instill confidence and compassion in a white toddler she cares for.


BATES: Viola Davis has been both lauded for her skill and lashed at for playing a maid, Aibileen Clark, in "The Help." When she visited the set of "The View," Davis told Barbara Walters she'd braced herself for criticism when she took the role.

: You knew there was going to be a backlash from the African-American community. It is a story set in 1962 about maids who were not educated. And I thought that people would look at that, and they wouldn't see the work.

BATES: In fact, most people who saw the work praised it, but that didn't stop some black folks from wishing aloud that Davis could have been wonderful in some other role. That might be the decades-old residue from when Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to receive an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind."

HATTIE MCDANIEL: I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you and God bless you.


BATES: For talk show host Tavis Smiley, Davis's role as a maid doesn't feel like much progress.

TAVIS SMILEY: There's something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid. Here we are all these years later, and I want you to win, but I'm ambivalent about what you're winning for.

BATES: Davis isn't having it.

: That very mindset that you have, and that a lot of African-Americans have, is absolutely destroying the black artist.

BATES: Davis told FRESH AIR host Terry Gross that a maid can be a meaty role in the right hands.

: You're only reduced to a cliche if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation.

BATES: She knows the occupation well. Davis's mother and grandmother were both maids in the South. So does Kim McLarin. The Emerson College professor also had family members who were domestic workers. She loathed the movie.

KIM MCLARIN: To me, it's less about them playing maids, although that's problematic, but about the role that those maids are serving in the story.

BATES: McLarin says "The Help's" maids were the vehicle for the moral growth of Skeeter Phelan, who wants to break into publishing by writing a book about their lives. Aibileen is, understandably, reluctant. She knows better than anyone the cost of such an enterprise.


BATES: Many of the movie's black critics say the portrayal of Skeeter Phelan as the community's young white savior was particularly offensive. That relegated the black folks to being backdrops in Skeeter's coming-of-age drama, which, in some ways, makes "The Help" a typical Hollywood movie. And that probably won't change anytime soon. A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times noted the Academy of Motion Pictures' membership is 94 percent white.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.