The Neo-Mammy.

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Mammy. Who among us hasn’t settled in to watch a film and cringed when some African American woman saunters onto the screen—all attitude and tempered benevolence—to serve as a surrogate parent to some Caucasian child? Oh, you know the type. See Clara’s Heart. See Corrina, Corrina. See Al Jolson’s odious blackface ode in The Jazz Singer. Or, if you’re one for historical panache, see the flick that boasts the quintessential embodiment of the archetype, wherein the featured mammy took home an Oscar: Gone with the Wind.

Last year, there were two films that revisited the mammy well for character inspiration. First, there was October ’08’s The Secret Life of Bees, adapted from the bestselling Sue Monk Kidd novel of the same name. Bees featured not one, not two, but four well-intentioned sister-girlfriend-mommas for the woeful, lovelorn, somewhat abused Dakota Fanning (as Lily Owens).

Queen Latifah served as – what else? – the matriarch of the crew, as August, the eldest of the Boatwright sisters (all named after spring and summer months). Sophie Okenedo, as May, shone in her role as a simple-minded surviving twin. (Her sister April died in adolescence, leaving May unable to healthily process grief. Insert practically unprompted rocking, head-banging, moaning and crying here.)

August and May are typical mammies. They’re doting and reassuring – and they willingly put themselves at great physical risk to help their White ward.

But the other two mammies in this Monk Kidd adaptation are a bit more complex. Alicia Keys, as June, a militant in a perma-scowl, an afro-wig, tight militant t-shirts, and even tighter high-waisted jeans, is angry, distrustful, and very reticent about taking in Lily–who’s obviously lying about the circumstances surrounding her arrival. For more than half of the film, she alone is the sole voice of dissent, the one person who treats Lily with any less than sugary goodness.

And finally, there’s the Jennifer Hudson character, Rosaleen, who finds herself fleeing police custody after Lily daringly rescues her from a hospital ward (Rosaleen was on her way to voter’s registration, thanks to the brand new civil rights legislation she witnessed on the black and white television at the Owens home, where she served as a part-time maid, when she was beaten by craggy neighborhood toughs and arrested when their account of events didn’t match hers. ‘She started it!’).

Their first night on the run, before they reached the Peptol-pink, sunflowery Boatwright residence, Rosaleen and Lily get into a blow0ut argument where Lily tries to chastise her caretaker/maid for provoking the white men they’d met on the road. Rosaleen sees Lily’s chastisement and raises her an, “I resent you, this situation, and the social hierarchy of race!” diatribe. It ends in a silent stalemate.

Later, in the third act of the film, Latifah’s character tries to (gingerly) explain to Lily that black women working for White people is “complicated.” Careful not to hurt the girl’s feelings, despite weeks of Lily’s presence resulting in tragedy and injustice for all, Latifah tries to broach the subject of resentments just under the surface. Of her own former white ward, she muses, “Yes, I loved her. But it was complicated.”

Hmm. It isn’t often that Hollywood strives for any sense of honesty about what was really going on in the hearts and minds of black domestics, as they scrubbed floors and diapered white folks. Though The Secret Life of Bees is no trailblazing manifesto, it isn’t exactly mamby-pamby in its discussion of black-and-white-woman relations in the 1960s, either.

Consider it one the early entrees struggling to birth a new archetype: The Neo-Mammy.

Bees wasn’t alone last year. December 25’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where Taraji P. Henson steps into a role absent from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source material, also ventures into Neo-Mammy territory as Queenie. (Doesn’t that name just scream, “Mammy!”?) Henson becomes Benjamin’s “mother,” after his father abandons him on the doorstep of the assisted living home where she lives and works.

After having the infant examined by a doctor, Queenie tells her elderly wards that Benjamin is her nephew and resolves to raise him until he dies (which the doctor, who diagnosed Benjamin as having the arthritic, feeble body of an 80-year-old, claimed would probably be quite soon). Interestingly, we see that Queenie is quick to be gracious about raising Benjamin when she thinks it’ll only be for a month or two.

But as we know from posters and trailers, Brad Pitt lives for quite some time. Brad Pitt lives practically forever.

Director David Fincher doesn’t have Henson conceal her irritation and exasperation about raising a special-needs “boy” like the liver-spotted Benjamin. And years later, when she has a child of her own (something that’d previously been diagnosed as impossible), the film’s attention meanders away from the Queen-Benjamin bond. She’s consumed with raising her own kid; he takes up with a longshoreman who escorts him to his first brothel. It’s pretty unwieldy.

But the point is: Queenie isn’t your average Mammy. We see this even before she decides to take care of Benjamin. In her introductory scene, Queenie tries to retire to her bedroom for a respite from her high-maintenance elderly patients. One of them practically follows her through the closing door, lamenting that she can’t find her pearls. Henson reaches out and clutches the pearls. Then she leans forward and, through clenched teeth, spits, “They’re right here, Mrs. [Whoever.] Right here around your pretty white neck!”

It’s the kind of line that puts you on high alert. It’s a line that makes you say, “Oh, snap. This ain’t your mama’s Mammy.”

25 thoughts on “The Neo-Mammy.

  1. Molly January 8, 2009 at 2:28 pm Reply

    How dangerous to construct an updated stereotype more palatable then the previous, as if the entire notion of the mammy shouldn’t be abolished altogether. Unfortunately, it seems that any media representation of a non-parental guardian of a precious, fragile white ward brings up issues of class, race and gender that are still very current.

  2. G.D. January 8, 2009 at 3:08 pm Reply

    I wonder where the line rests between perpetuating stereotypes and accurate historical depiction. My grandmother was a domestic for the well-off whites for much of her adult life, as were untold black women who were born in the first quarter of the 20th century.

    The stereotype, like all stereotypes, is an exaggeration/falsehood which exists mainly to justify power dynamics. You know, the nurturing black woman whose servitude is rewarding for her because she so loves the charge in her care.

    The reality, of course, is much different. Chisun Lee, formerly of the Village Voice, wrote an entire series on the tenuous professional and personal lives of New York’s domestics. Some of their stories are terrible, and I think of them walk around my new neighborhood, Park Slope, and see the huge number of black women (usually of Caribbean extraction) pushing around white moppets in $500 strollers.

    This kind of work and these workers are everywhere. I guess I’m wondering if it’s better to not portray black women that way on film, as if they didn’t or don’t perform those roles. It seems like perpetuating their invisibility.

  3. slb January 8, 2009 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Perhaps this so-called “Neo-Mammy” is a transitional construct. Maybe Hollywood’s gearing up for more honest, less saccharine portrayals of black women as domestics/caregivers. Taraji P. Henson’s Queenie certainly seemed a step in that direction. She was only about 15% sentimentality and 85% realism.

  4. bitchphd January 8, 2009 at 5:04 pm Reply

    I’m gonna stick my toe in here and suggest that the neo-mammy, at least, isn’t about justifying power dynamics; it’s about reassuring nervous white people that yes, we (represented by young, “innocent” whites) can be forgiven/make friends with black people. So you sort of *have* to have the black woman, or a black woman, be explicitly aware of the racism of the thing, and say so, because that’s the elephant in the room that the white audience is all too aware of. It needs to be articulated, but it needs to be done so in a context with a lot of reassurance: a white character, innocent of history, who needs to learn about it but *also* needs to be able to have ‘friendships’ with black people that are somehow prior to her knowing about the history of why such friendships are complicated.

    The problem, of course, with this narrative (aside from the reassuring-white-people) problem is that to be innocent, the white character has to be young, which puts the black characters in a caretaking sort of role (or, worse, they get set up as “friends,” i.e., equals to a white child). I don’t see why a narrative like that wouldn’t work with two kids, white and black, being friends, and with white kid seeing things through black kid’s eyes, except that then you run into the inevitable narrative problem of, do they stay friends? Do they drift apart? If the former, how do you manage to have the white character maintain any innocence without the black character looking either resentful or like a chump? And if the latter, then it’s not an uplifting, reassuring narrative.

  5. bitchphd January 8, 2009 at 5:05 pm Reply

    (Also, I wonder what the diff. is between these movies and the magical negro movies, which are almost always about men, but I have to run off to pick up my kid now so can’t think about it.)

  6. shani-o January 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm Reply

    Bitch- the magical negro, typically a man (save Whoopi who played both mammy and magical negro in Corinna, Corinna… slb has a great post about Goldberg) usually serves to help the white man change and grow and expand as a person. Mammies tend to protect their wards and treat them like children, while maintaining an ignorance about the world around them, and the fact that their young master or mistress is growing up.

    Shorter: magical negroes push the white character outside of themselves, mammies try to reign them back in.

    As to the neo-mammy, well Taraji’s character certainly sounds interesting. But I’m tired of seeing black women as either sexless and abrasive or hypersexual and too slick for their own good.

  7. universeexpanding January 8, 2009 at 6:28 pm Reply

    GD: I have two aunts living in Brooklyn. Both started out working as domestics and au pairs. One managed to go to school (largely because she was younger, had no children and married an American) and become an accountant but the other is still doing it to this day. I think you’re right in thinking that not showing black women and other minority women in these roles it would be contributing to the the way people seem to just look right through them. I used to complain a lot about the attitudes of my two cousins who had moved to NY and their unwise life choices, but their mother wasn’t at home raising them…she was in Manhattan raising someone else’s kids. The people who she worked for often had no boundaries either – calling at all hours, berating her failing to do things that really should have been their responsibility. Indeed there were some kids that she looked after who were inconsolable if they were sick and she wasn’t there and more than once she had to leave her own kids at home to go comfort someone else’s. I would love to see a role that exposes those types of realities, and the sense of entitlement that these white families exhibit where it comes to the “coloured” help. It’s almost as if they forget these women have their own families, lives and something better to do than fawn over the kids they take care of.

  8. ladyfresshh January 8, 2009 at 6:39 pm Reply

    hrrm…i’m not sure that queenie is neo…
    but then again those scenes were a *blink* and a *smirk* when i saw them. even the initial courting scene with Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (goddamn you know i imdb’d that i had no idea his name was that long, as long as i’ve seen his foine self…anyways) and how they played off each other

    it is curious that their relationship was not exactly established (married??) but a baby resulted

    i’ll agree that there was a dance and slight tugging back and forth between hints of something new and the established role…i’ll need to think this over a bit more

  9. thembi January 8, 2009 at 10:24 pm Reply

    ““Oh, snap. This ain’t your mama’s Mammy.”

    That is brilliant.

    You know, I just saw the Sex and The City movie for the first time last weekend and was sooo irritated by JHuds performance that I ended up seeing her as a neo-mammy of sorts in that film as well, and if not at least a Magic Negress or something. I think that the idea of an otherwise perfectly capable character being so hopelessly white and distant from his/her own soul that only a black woman with a huge heart hiding under huger breasts could ever help them recover themselves…

  10. Nichole January 9, 2009 at 12:13 am Reply

    can whoopi be considered both magical negro and mammy in her role in the movie Ghost?

    i worked as a buyer for a black bookstore in the dc area when …Bees was first published, and i could not understand, for the life of me, why it was so popular. i refused to read it and refused to see it in theatres.

    jhud in sex and the city was definitely a mammy figure, in my estimation. a black woman taking care of a white woman, receiving the lovely gifts the white woman deigns to give her, and imparting “deep” bits of wisdom to help the white woman find her way. *gag*

  11. ding January 9, 2009 at 12:39 am Reply

    i wonder, too, how the Neo-Mammy and the Sassy Black Girlfriend (SBGF) relate to one another. Like the mammy figure, the SBGF grounds the more neurotic white girl and gives her plenty of ‘girl, please’ advice that inevitably shows the neurotic white girl how to ‘be herself.’ ( Remember Ally McBeal/Renee Raddick or almost any sitcom with Sherri Shepherd.) the SBGF is the voice of the ‘real,’ the authentic, the earth, the sex, the whatever while white girl gets to wander around adorably clueless. annoying.

    (also annoying that the SBGF is almost always depicted as single, unconnected to any community or group of her own, as if she exists just to smooth her white girl’s brow. oh, wait! she does!)

  12. ladyfresshh January 9, 2009 at 11:02 am Reply

    ah thanks ding i think that’s what was niggling about this…taraji seems to have been the sassy mammy

    i’m not sure this is neo though

    where would this put the performance if it was just a mingling of stereotypes?

  13. slb January 9, 2009 at 11:08 am Reply

    What’s new about the mammy archetype in these two films is that the caretakers’ resentments are seething just behind their hugs and their grins–insomuch that the children are beginning to feel their impact.

  14. Molly January 9, 2009 at 12:46 pm Reply

    The concept of the SBGF (and the newest version, relatively-speaking: the Single Gay Boy Friend) relies so heavily on a stereotype of heterosexual white women: emotionally frail, inauthentic, neurotic, sexually unrealized, narcissistic; the presence of this fictitious character is not only degrading for black women, but it hurts white women as well.

  15. shani-o January 9, 2009 at 2:42 pm Reply

    Molly- That’s a *really* good point.

  16. Redstar January 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm Reply

    @Nichole – I agree with you about Bees. I read it and found it unremarkable and forgettable. I was surprised when it was made into a movie.

    I don’t think I was fully conscious of the racial dynamics in the book (meaning I could not have articulated the analysis that’s going on in this post and thread), but I do remember thinking something along the lines of why are all these adult black women having to hang around with this little white girl? I can only remember a sensation of thinking it was sort of odd and off-putting.

    Great discussion.

    And I saw Benjamin Buttons (this is Netflix worthy, but def. not the price of a movie ticket – it’s 2008’s Forest Gump, and Queenie reminded me more of the Sallie Field character in FG than anything) and have really mixed feelings about it. I have worked pretty intensively in New Orleans for the last 3 years, and am really attune to the racial dynamics of the city. That said, again, I didn’t know exactly what to make of Queenie, like a lot of commenters here. There was definitely some of the stereotypical selflessness and sacrifice for the special white child; on the other hand, there was a more honest exasperation w/Benjamin and more generalize sense of a barren woman taking in an abandoned child – sort of a religious gift from god, storyline, if you will.

    One thing I was disappointed about was it seemed like it was a big deal that Queenie had her own child, but I felt like the remainder of the movie continued to have her prize Benjamin – her daughter was practically invisible. I am skeptical this was necessary for plot purposes. Either way, to me, it grated on me in gender terms – that the daughter is shunted aside for the revered son. That the son was white and the daughter was black added to the dynamic.

    As for JHud in SATC, when I think of her role I can’t get out of my head an interview I read with Producer Michael Patrick King about how he deliberately wrote in a role for an African-American woman, in response to the desire of black women fans of the show to see more representation of themselves in the movie. And that’s what he came up with. Good work, Mike!

  17. slb January 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm Reply

    redstar: i really hadn’t considered the dynamic you discuss in your second-to-last graph. it’s true that the daughter is invisible (one scene, one line. incidentally, that was the same actress who was part of forest whitaker’s/denzel whitaker’s family in The Great Debaters. she had three scenes and one line in that, too. like, what was the point of including a daughter at all?). anyway, it’s true that the daughter is invisible, but after she’s born, so is benjamin in queenie’s life (with the exception of maybe two more scenes–both involving his return home and attempted hook-ups with daisy).

    i didn’t necessarily feel like she revered him after her own child was born. wasn’t that fincher’s point by having little-girl daisy explain to him that queenie was pregnant and having his face fall in response?

    when he came home after the longshoreman stint, he met the daughter (presumably, they’d “met” when the kid was an infant) and neither had any affinity. the girl’s one line is: “i didn’t know he was supposed to my ‘brother.'” i took that as, queenie may have talked about him, but she didn’t refer to him as family.

    this is a really interesting line of discussion. i’d like to mull it a bit more.

    meanwhile, none of this would be an issue if the writers had just stuck to fitzgerald’s story, set in antebellum Baltimore, with no mention of African Americans (surrogate parents or otherwise). moving it to new orleans (against a looming katrina backdrop, no less), adding the backwards clock narrative, romanticizing the daisy/benjamin relationship, that long stint at sea… all of that was manipulative and pandering.

  18. […] 9, 2009 Yesterday, PostBourgie published my essay on the idea that Hollywood is slowly reconstructing its traditional archetype of […]

  19. Zesi January 10, 2009 at 11:46 am Reply

    As having seen neither movies, I cannot comment on them in particular.

    Sometimes the truth is ugly; I am sure there were and are some domestics who put their own desires and even needs below those of their employers. It’s a strange world where you’re both family and help, and those with the most power in that relationship can blur that line however it suits them.

    Some people really are just that giving, and will take people on in their lives despite the fact that it may destroy them.

    It’s not the whole reality of people, though, just part. The problem lies when that reality is blown up and replayed over and over without any notion of the complexity of these women. There is a system bigger than any one screenwriter or director saying…Hey, this woman I know, because of years of perpetuated stereotypes, and I can identify with that and so can the audience, but that woman, she’s too strange/complicated/difficult/different for me to get, and so the audience can’t.

    Also, if you’re a nuturing and somewhat selfless black woman in a movie, are you automatically “mammy”? If you’re silly and black, are you automatically a coon? Or do we sometimes react to things the way we know or think others will take them, sucking the joy out of something that might be touching or amusing without the racist baggage of our lives?

    I don’t know.

  20. slb January 10, 2009 at 12:21 pm Reply

    Zesi- Good points, all. I think that, unless the domestic is the main character/focus of a film, infusing her with complexity isn’t a filmmaker’s priority. As a fringe character, it’s easier to make her mono-dimensional. For me, mono-dimensional black female domestics are mammies IF that one dimension is an oversimplified and exaggerated selflessness about which the woman seems to consider herself *really* blessed to bestow upon a white ward.

    In the two films mentioned, the domestics/caretakers were multilayered. There was nothing simple about their acceptance of responsibility for these kids. They knew it would be difficult and likely detrimental and they weren’t thrilled about it (which seems to be a relatively new dynamic for filmmakers to explore, hence the “neo-mammy” label). Because they still (almost inexplicably) welcome the child and accept the ill consequences stoically (peaceably?), they still kind of count as mammies.

    I think we may do a separate post on the thin lines between semi-realistic portrayals of black characters and broad archetypes.

  21. bitchphd January 10, 2009 at 7:39 pm Reply

    The Sassy Black Girlfriend/Sassy Queer Friend has a third incarnation: the Sassy Fat Friend. Talk about split identities: here’s the feminine archetype that’s pretty and desirable (white, thin, youngish) and here’s the side of her that gets lines to say.

  22. grahamad January 11, 2009 at 6:26 pm Reply

    slb – I didn’t know any of that about the original Fitzgerald story. Yeah, I’m not at all sure how I feel about the Katrina flood storyline of the movie. OTOH, it had to happen sometime, that it would be enshrined in a popular movie, OTOH, what exactly was the point of it here? Kinda sensational.

    You also have a good point re: Benjamin, the daughter and Queenie.

  23. BlackWomenBlowTheTrumpet January 11, 2009 at 9:03 pm Reply

    Hello there!

    I did not see “Bees” and just the THOUGHT of another neo-mammy made me cringe….

    That stereotype is just sooo tired.

    As for Whoopi in her blockbuster “magical negro” role in “Ghost”….”Molly, you in danger gurl.”

    Stop.

    Just.

    Stop.

  24. Steve January 11, 2009 at 9:20 pm Reply

    Let’s just hope the “gay male best friend/stylist/weddingp planner” role becomes just slightly more dynamic someday LOL….

  25. Steve January 11, 2009 at 10:05 pm Reply

    This is a great piece though btw…although I’m still not sure i want to see secret life of bees LOL… Jhud in SATC is endemic of the entire show’s stereotyped representations…the gay characters are the worst… Blair Underwood might have come across more dynamic except the way they ended that storyline was the worst.

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