For many years, black actors have taken on what could be called ‘secondary roles’ within Hollywood films. For example, in 1939 Hattie McDaniel played the part of Mammy, a black housemaid, in the epic Civil War romance, Gone with the Wind. A more recent example of African-American characters playing subservient roles is The Help. It tells the story of an aspiring author during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s who takes it upon herself to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families they work for, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis. The Help was originally a book written by Kathryn Stockett but was made into a film, released in the USA on 12th August 20111 and on its opening weekend, generated a turnout of $26,044,5902. Produced by Dreamworks, with a budget of only $25,000,0003 The Help is said to “succeed wonderfully, a warm and sweet song of hope that pushes all the right buttons.”4
Another example of African-Americans taking on a subservient character is Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’. Released on 16th August 2013 in the USA this film is about a black man named Cecil Gaines that serves eight presidents during his time as a butler at the White House. It also focuses on the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events that affect his life, family and American society. It is similar to The Help in a variety of ways, such as the focus on African-Americans during the 1960s and their roles as servants to the ‘superior’ white people within society and also, the references made towards the Civil Rights Movement. However, each film deals with the issues in different ways. For example, in The Help, the Civil Rights Movement is presented as a very positive subject through the coming together of the characters Skeeter and Aibileen; a white journalist and a black housemaid. Whereas The Butler focuses more on Cecil and his discouragement towards the movement and the tragic effects it has on his family.
Despite being on the receiving end of a number of favourable reviews and 2 nominations for a BAFTA award; The Butler is not as critically acclaimed as The Help. The Guardian called it “treacly and stilted” and stated that “it doesn’t quite work”.5 And so the question of why The Butler was not as successful as The Help is raised, regardless of the fact that the concepts of both films are extremely similar. One of the possible reasons for The Butler’s lack of success is the way in which Civil Rights are approached and presented. The Help focuses largely on the strength of black people, women in particular, and their persistence in ‘making a change’. And so as previously mentioned, Civil Rights are presented as a positive characteristic of 1960s society. However The Butler centres its attention on Cecil opposing the Civil Rights Movement, with the inclusion of graphic, violent scenes that some viewers may have found disturbing. In comparison to the light hearted nature of The Help, The Butler covers the sinister aspect of the Civil Rights Movement which the audience may not want to see. This may have affected the way the audience perceived the film as a whole, and as a result, was not as prosperous as The Help. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian states that “On the home front, Cecil is portrayed as a tough, caring father to his two sons, but in the all-important work arena, he is a submissive son to a succession of hammy daddy figures, posturing away behind the Oval Office desk.”6 This lack of consistency of the main character may also be another reason as to why the film was a flop compared to The Help.
One of the earliest stereotypes of African-Americans to emerge in television and film is that of the domestic worker/house servant. It is most typical for a black woman to be casted as a domestic, with characters such as Hattie McDaniel in Gone