Desnee Flakes's Blog

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Desnee Flakes

Desnee Flakes
Aiken, South Carolina, US
December 04
I am a recently employed activist who has been writing all my life about the issues that mean the most to me. My interests lie in politics, parity, race, and history. I believe that each of those things are interconnected and that only when we look straight at something do we actually see it. My politics are left of center, and I don't rely on any movement to define where my center is. My father taught us to measure others with the same yardstick you measure yourself.


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FEBRUARY 27, 2012 12:07PM

Let's Act Surprised!! The Black Maid Is A Winner!!

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Well another year of pagentry has come and gone and one thing that the Academy remains faithful to is their committment to honor the Black maid. Can you imagine if half of all the awards that White women earned were for their role as burger flipper? I'm pretty sure you can't.  That would be because White women can be nominated as; crusaders for social justice, rape victims, heads of state, Queens, nuns, ballerinas, and mothers. 

Black women, not so much. At this point it is pretty clear, that even if Hollywood decided to make a movie about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's rise to power and her Peace Prize, if she had a maid that's who would be recognized. 

Hattie McDaniel won her award back in 1940, for what I'm told was a really funny turn as Scarlett O'hara's maid. Funny she is called a maid for the part of a slave. I guess some people have problems with the distinction, but one generally gets paid while the other doesn't. But that reason for calling Hattie's character a maid, may lie in some of the other Black women who have either won or not the little gold man. 

After Hattie's win there was a long drought before another Black woman was able to take the prize statue home. The next would be Whoopee Goldberg for her turn as a fake psychic (criminal) in the movie Ghost.This may have represented a turning point in how Hollywood viewed Black women. Now we could be rewarded for roles as "maids" and crooks. The spectrum which we were being viewed was a ying-- caretakers-- and yang --takers-- but whatever goes in between, was rarely acknowledged and certainly not feted. 

Before Goldberg won in 1991 there was a triple nomination in 1985 for Oprah as Sophia (a woman forced to be a maid), Margaret Avery as Shug (the whore juke joint singer), and Whoopee as Celie (the abused wife) inThe Color Purple. Oprah and Margaret were nominated for supporting roles while Whoopee was nominated for her star turn. Earlier I said that the distinction between appearing to be a willing maid and being forced to be one seems to weigh heavily here as Oprah didn't win.  Her Sophia clearly was beaten and imprisoned into submitting to maid work: and the rule to winning for a maid's role is you have to wanna be one.

The Academy was on a roll in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. In those years Black women stretched themselves a bit more. Sophie Okonedo the second Black Brit to be nominated (none of them for maids roles) played a supportive wife in Hotel Rhwanda. Jennifer Hudson won her Best Supporting Actress award for Effie the Dream Girl in 2006. Ruby Dee was nominated for her turn as Mama Lucas in American Gangster in 2007. And in 2008 Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress for their turns as mothers. In 2009 Monique would win for her role as an abusive mother in Precious.  

Of course winning the Best Supporting role seems to cancel out any chance of a nominated co-star winning the top prize as it has never happened to a set of Black actresses. However, Hattie McDaniel and Vivian Leigh did each receive one for Gone With The Wind  for the different catagories. Which brings us back around to 2011 nominees and winners. Black women didn't move far from the mammy, maid, or slave roles from 1939 to 2011. We certainly haven't been recognized for our work as; social workers, sex symbols, lawyers, movement leaders, politicians, Queens, heads of state, or journalists. In 2011 we have come full circle to Octavia Spencer bringing something new and different to the role of the Black maid, and being rewarded for her effort. I can't tell you as a Black woman how grateful I am to Hollywood, for their continuing effort to present Black woman as woman. I mean it, I can't tell you.



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Hattie McDaniel, despite winning an Oscar, still had to sit at a separate table from the other Gone With the Wind nominees.
Her statue was much smaller than the others, too. ~r
I should mention that I read somewhere that the "supporting actor" statues were smaller in those days. It still bothers me.
I had to add Whitney Houston's I'm Every Woman I have yet to master the HTML but I think the title alone says it all. That we are still relegated to a separate table in the pantheon of what constitutes womanhood is sickening. Thanks for the comment and the additional info Joan.
Being an old white guy I'm not sure how valid my perspective will be, but here it is just the same: In an NPR interview a week or so ago Ms. Davis took issue with criticism that she was playing a stereotypical character in The Help.

Had the role been a cliche, she said, "...I wouldn't have done it. 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."

Davis told interviewer Terri Gross she'd played one-dimensional characters in the past, but she said she didn't see Aibileen — the 53-year-old maid with a sixth-grade education — falling into that category.

"I saw her going on a journey. I saw her having humor and heart and intelligence. I saw her as having duality. And that's what I look for above anything else. Because usually, that is what's missing."

Here's a link to the interview: Viola Davis
If I were Viola Davis I would have said the exact same thing. Whatever she saw and what we see as the go to role for Black Actresses to win with the Academy is very different from her wanting to imbue the character with worthwhile qualities. She was still a maid.
She also has said when she enters the casting room they see her as depressed and something else not very positive I can't remember the word exactly. What I would like them to see her as is anything the role calls for.
Don't forget Halle Berry. I know your focus is on the roles as opposed to the performances, and I'm not trying to pick a fight, but it seems to me you take something from the actress in doing so. A brilliant performance, in my opinion, gives us all a keener, richer perspective of the human condition no matter how humble, flawed or noble the character portrayed. But I'm fairly cynical when it comes to politics.
Rosa Parks worked as a domestic. She was employed as a seamstress when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. She lost her job because of that act. Any story about any person that profiles conscience overcoming fear is compelling, I think people are relating to that issue now - see the 99%. There were very few job opportunities for women during that time, and yet women had to work.
I guess black actors could wait around for the good roles, but they gotta eat and they gotta do what they do. It's so hard to get any film made in hollywood, let alone one with substance. It bugs me that the only popular black director is Tyler Perry. He's now in the position to do anything, but his films rely on painfully stereotypical characters. Unwatchable stuff. Morgan Freeman talks about his own career where he had to make some crucial career decisions so he didn't end up at 72 playing "Uncle Remus" or the like.

Good, well-researched article as always, Des.
From Saturday's show Melissa Harris Perry says it way better than me. And her panel really gets into it. Interesting that the one domestic on the panel is not from this country. So her understanding of the history may not be the same as that of someone from the Black South. Linking it here.
Rosa Parks was violated when she worked as a domestic onislandtime are you sure you want to discuss her time as a domestic if you are advocating for Black women as maids being a defining role for Black actresses.
Chicken Maaan exactly what was so great about the role Halle Berry played? She was the wife of a man on death row. The point of my whole piece is that Black women are limited in who we get to portray in Hollywood and which roles we get recognized for. Making it about The Help is what you are doing I'm making it about the industry specifically and this movie in general.
@June, Tyler Perry employs my 1st cousin Jason Olive on For Better or Worse, so I'm not at liberty to talk about his product :-)
Gotcha! -- he's gotta eat and whether we like the character or not, Perry does offer a lot of actors jobs! Billy Crystal last night said about Viola Davis' role, "It was nice to see someone playing a strong black woman other than Tyler Perry." sigh
I'm aware of Mrs. Park's writings, and the attack. I did not (obviously) make my point clear. It doesn't matter what a person does for work. I think that the story told was about conscience overcoming fear, and that it resonated with viewers (or readers of the book). During that time there were very few jobs available to women.
onislandtime I added the panel Melissa Harris-Perry had on this issue. You will find that since as one panelist states it's the Disney version of what "The Help" had to endure, written not from their perspective but that of the White girl raised by one of them it has nothing to actually do with the Black experience. You may want to view that panel, because I must not be making myself clear either.
OK, I hear you. Your pitch is focused solely on the role not the performance, just as Ms. Harris-Perry's was when she said, "what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid." And I'll repeat, if you will, the quote from Ms. Davis: "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." Would you have preferred the book The Help not been written and not been filmed? Or perhaps you'd be happier were it written by an African American? Might it then have been more historically accurate (I've seen no criticism that it wasn't true to life). Or better not to have been nominated for an Academy Award because of its uncomfortable subject matter? Would you rather have seen Ms. Davis portray Margaret Thatcher in whiteface? Should Ms. Davis have turned down the role and held out for the possibility of book/movie portraying Condoleezza Rice or Michelle Obama? Or maybe in the hopes of playing Whitney Houston? (Oh, wait, entertainers are stereotypcial roles, too). My point? Methinks you're playing the race card here much too conveniently and too heavily handed. Your privilege, of course, but in making your narrow political point you diminish recognition of fine performances by artists who deserve the highest praise for their accomplishments.
Let's write better roles for black women--for ALL women.
Chicken Maaan me thinks you referring to the race card is the cheapest card trick in the book and one that one uses when they really have nothing of import to say on a given issue. You stated that you haven't heard any complaints well I added MHP's panel just for people like you. It would not have bothered me a bit of that work of fiction had not been written or made into a movie.
You're preaching to a choir, woman, and I'm not a member. Buh-bye.
Thank you for your perspective! I've been educated. I try never to assume I know more than those who walk in the shoes. You have added another dimension to the story!
Chicken Maaan don't let the door hit ya where the dog shoulda bit ya!
SpiritmanSF that is all this post is about another perspective and one that isn't mine alone. Thanks for stopping by and joining in.
Honestly, jobs for black actors aside, I would have been happy to never have heard of the book or the movie. I remember being in a Starbucks when I saw the title and the cover on the cd for the soundtrack. I just thought to myself, "Oh, no...oh, no..." I quit watching movies about slaves and I don't want to see anymore movies about "the help". Not right now anyway. Not when we're trying to dig our way out of the notion that we hear on the news everyday that we have too many babies, smoke crack, etc. With a black man as president, I thought our dream had arrived. Instead the backlash is taking us back into the dark ages. As far as playing the "race card" that's like saying a woman is playing the "woman" card when she brings up the controversial "birthing" issues swirling around these days. The GOP is doing a fine job of fueling hatred and fear toward everyone and it's contagious and in the end it's probably how they'll win.
And I guess you could call it playing the race card when the studios wouldn't fund the movie Red Tails about the Tuskeegee Airmen who fought for this country in WWII. The "race card" is always a cheap shot, ending any sort of reasonable discussion.
@Junesteward: same as playing it.
@June apparently Chicken Maaan (could there be a more perfect name) favors fictional accounts of history. It's his comfort food anyone who challenges it is playing the race card. I wish he would play the I have a lick of sense card, but apparently the only one in his deck is you're playing the race card card.
And you are nothing but a tape loop, Desne.
I hope I do not tangent too far, but these points are one reason I enjoy Grey's Anatomy so much. Why would it be so hard to make a movie this way, with black actors cast as leads, or not, in a thoroughly racially mixed cast?
I live in a town that has a Shakespeare Festival, one of the more popular ones in the country I think, the acting is just excellent, the roles are given to the actor that fits it, not chosen to fit traditional race roles. So, my first MacBeth viewing, the actor who played MacBeth was black. The next play had three siblings, played by two whites and a black actor, the next play had an Asian mother and black son...
I loved them all as the priority was to have the best actors playing those roles, and it was just as easy to disappear into the characters and plot, easier, because of the excellent acting. Time to move on, Hollywood filmmakers.
That said, I heard both Octavia Spencer's and Viola Davis's performances were excellent. I haven't watched the movie and the book sat by my bed for months after being given to me, I was so reluctant to read it....
Great rant. You make me wish I could slap some people.

Can I just say that Gone With the Wind is a horrible movie, with nasty characters, way too long, and then there's that disgusting scene where Vivian Leigh barfs up a carrot? You couldn't pay me to watch it again.

I was interested to read June's comment dissing Tyler Perry. Someone invited me to a Tyler Perry movie night at her house, and although several of her friends (also black) seemed to think he was hilarious, like June, I thought his characters were stereotypical, his narratives simplistic and kinda immature. Sitting on a couch with laughing black people though, I figured it would not be polite to say this.

As for Morgan Freeman, I love the roles he chooses. He gets to write his own ticket these days though. It's worth mentioning that women can't–black women, older women, heavy women, and lots of other kinds of women not boobed and tucked. Imagine the female equivalent of Nick Nolte being hired for even a bit walk on role. Never ever happen!
If discussions of the African American experience are (and, boy are they) this pathetic and lame in trying to make some equivelancy for poor white folks who somehow CAN'T SEEM TO FIGURE OUT THE DECK IS STACKED AGAINST THE "OTHERS" FOR OVER FOUR CENTURIES NOW here on OS, then imagine how much worse they are on right wing authoritarian (read, any so called Republican these days)- oh, right, oops, there they just jump right into the N-word directly and post unlimited Gorilla and Mandingo pics all day, every day ... wake up PEOPLE!
Well so far it seems only Chicken Maaan is incapable of having an adult conversation and thinks yelling fire in a burning building is somehow wrong. He also thinks all Blacks should be of the same mind and that I have to agree with Viola Davis who got paid to star in this fairy tale. I didn't and I wouldn't.
@oahusurfer, that being said I think most of the other comments are of people either understanding what the "beef" is about, others working to understand, and those who understand that Blacks don't all think alike and here is a very good example of why.
@Just thinking, exactly the point. Why should women with this kind of talent have the choice of no work and maid work, because all the other roles are looking for someone, anyone who isn't you.
@greenheron, one day we are going to open the blinds and allow real discourse, you are going to be allowed to say to Black people I don't get the Tyler Perry humor, here is why, and people are going to say that's cool and I get that. Unfortunately I think that Black people are so starved to see ourselves that we will go to a minstrel show if it means being represented. That is what is so sad about this movie. When the man on the panel speaks about the cops beating one of the maids and 30 minutes later still battered she is back to assuming her picaninny role of laughing through the pain and humiliation that says everything to me. And really only someone with no understanding of the situation could have written such a scene. My parents never allowed us to see Gone With The Wind because it was so demeaning and that isn't the image they wanted us to have of ourselves. The Help isn't the image I want to have of myself either.
Returning to read your comment, and say how much I enjoy being able to dialog frankly with you. True about fans of Tyler Perry. I watch older women in not so hot stereotypical roles, just because they are older.

Regarding white people who rationalize the pain away, speaking for myself, sometimes the guilt feels so very very great, it is almost unbearable, and you want to shift something, anything, to minimize it in your own mind. The man who commented way back, can't remember his avatar, but said something like well, enjoy your hate white people month...that isn't so far off the mark, when you are willing to accept the weight of what was/is done by white people to black people. This whole Oscar thing puts it right into the present moment. People feel better patting themselves on the back and thinking they did their bit when they voted for Obama and/or watched The Help and found it good, and now it's all fine.

An image that has stuck in my head since the election, was a brief nanosecond when a camera was on the face of Jesse Jackson at the moment it was announced that Obama had officially won the presidency. It broke my heart. You could see a whole life of emotion cross his face in an instant: how hard he had worked to be elected himself, some degree of envy and regret, tears, then sheer elation that he was seeing a dream come true. I cried then, for him, for what all that cost him. He would have been a fine president, and it sucks that he could not be. But....just to highlight what an old hippie I am, I wanted to see Dick Gregory become President too.
"Unfortunately I think that Black people are so starved to see ourselves that we will go to a minstrel show if it means being represented."
that right there, yeah, I get that.
and it does suck- profoundly
I discovered foreign film, long ago when in my early 20s. The contrast with Hollywood is like night and day. As I have traveled the world, I learned the concept of Hollywood outside the American box is that it's all Disneyland. And now we have the Fox disinformation channel spewing out hatred 24 hours a day. I grew up a white boy in the middle of an African American community. In so many ways I am grateful for that! People assume they can say things in front of me they wouldn't say otherwise. Racism in America in 2012 is the scariest thing I've ever experienced in my life. No matter what all the other distractions are, I'm convinced the real motivation behind the Republican 2012 campaign is rooted in the fear that White Men will lose their power once and for all! I hope and pray that's true!
I was curious how black woman felt about this film, and I am listening and reading various attitudes that have basically come down to what you and the video above have related. Personally, everyone had told me about the film and I was disappointed as it seemed to me a movie of the week level film, the characters one dimensional and predictable. I also felt it served to try make white people feel better this college girl noticed the treatment, hoooey. Anyway. I am listening and I appreciate your piece here today.
@greenheron, Dick Gregory would have been a kick ass President he's the truth! Went to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to speak with them about their positions on illegal immigration and I will be posting an article I wrote which was featured in New Politics. My problem with their positions was I worked with illegal immigrants, I watched them collude with employers to freeze Americans out of jobs, and Blacks in particular. So I went to tell them what I had experienced for years, but they had taken a position to help their chances of gaining votes, not of the real situation. I'm glad neither of them got to the White House.
@hyblaean julie, it does profoundly suck. I posted a story called Highway To Here about a real Black family, that is an epic story. It will never make it to the big screen, because as Hollywood told George Lucas who will believe it? Right our history has been so distorted that when you want to bring it to the screen the very people who have diligently brought fairy tales and tried to pass them off as true stories now have no idea how to package the truth!!!
@SpiritmanSF, I've lived with racism so long that the only thing that surprises me today is that people don't recognize it when they see it, speak it, or hear it.
Rita do you remember several years ago when it was found out that Strom Thurmond had a Black daughter with The Help? The reason people want to assuage any guilt about this time is because they know, like many in the Black community that coupling, probably wasn't consensual. His daughter not wanting to be a rape baby gave him the pass he needed for both her to walk with head held high, and his memory not to be tarnished that he was the most vile kind of man. I live close to the area that all took place and before the story broke I was aware of her, it was an open secret here. I appreciate that you chose to join the conversation instead of sitting on the sidelines. We have a real opportunity to change everything, but it doesn't happen when we keep what we feel or think to ourselves. And speaking out isn't an act of hate, rather it is an act of love. Because we only share with those we love. Even Chicken Maaan.
The truth is so painful, especially when we look at ourselves. The honesty in these comments, no matter how much we agree or disagree. There's a saying, "If friends never argue, they're not really communicating." Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness allows us to change. Dishonesty, narrow-mindedness and an unwillingness to change and grow keeps us stuck in a cycle of ignorance and intolerance. Good stuff here, it's a great start. Thanks, Des, for opening the door with your article.
I meant to say: The honesty in these comments no matter how much we agree or disagree open us to a useful dialogue.

@greenheron...I actually felt pangs reading your comment, do real & insightful.
"so real & insightful..."
Here's another post by an OS writer on "The Help" just to get another voice in here.
I think the point that someone might be missing is that this isn't about Viola Davis, and it isn't about the role itself. Viola Davis is a fine actress and the role may not be a "cliche", as many, many African American women worked as domestic help in the south in the 1950s.

It's about the roles that are available to women of color and the roles that are considered "prestigious" enough for recognition by AMPAS. And the fact is that women of color (African American, Asian, Latina, etc.) are as diverse as white women. The roles offered to them and the performances that are singled out for recognition should reflect that. But they don't.

That being said, the Academy does seem to nominate and hand out a lot of awards to those who play "noble" roles, regardless of race, especially actors/actresses who portray disabled people, or those who play a historical or real-life figure (biopics).

I think a big part of the problem is racism. I also think some of it just laziness.
Jeanette you get me that is the point exactly. Go back over the list of women in my post for the most part they were mothers/maids. Black women occupy a lot more occupations than that, or that of singers we need to see them.
I had no interest in seeing "The Help," and actually saw none of the nominated films. I agree with where you are coming from. I am also very tired of seeing Meryl Streep walk away with the Oscars. Give someone else a chance! It's all so political, and yes, racist too.
I want to thank everyone because I've enjoyed this conversation and really appreciate the different voices who joined in and shared their perspectives.!/profile.php?__user=552069732

A link to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer talk to Oprah about the criticism of "The Help"
June I tried the link but it didn't work.
I too like how this conversation is honest and respectful, and conducted at a thoughtful pace.

For me this issue is tightly intertwined with the issue of women in film...all women. I like films about women, and color doesn't determine the draw. Women crave the reflection of our complexity and strength in film. If the characters speak to me, my time watching in the dark theater was well spent. Toni Morrison has been one of my favorite writers since I was a youngster, for the unforgettable characters she creates. They're like poems. I'd relish Sula brought to the screen. Imagine Viola Davis in that role. Wow.

Finally, any narrative generated by white people about black people makes me squidgy. There was a male author a few years back, I forget his name, who wrote as if he was a woman, and got much press because he was supposedly so good at it. A man can't write about periods. He'd always be writing about something else.
June I finally did view the Washington Post article and it felt like the author said many of the same things that I have said here. I'm sorry that Tania Richard didn't come on this line or her own to further discuss the issue. @greenheron, Meryl Streep has been nominated 17 times and her portrayals are never cookie cutter, and I dare say not women in the same line of work that have been explored ad infinitum across mediums. White women can play Hispanics and Native Americans. There are Black Hispanic actresses who can't get a role playing Hispanic because they aren't White (but they are Hispanic) two examples are Gina Torres and Christina Milian. So Black women are both culturally relegated to certain roles as well as occupationally. Check this video out
A very interesting video. Something that struck me immediately was how beautiful the interviewed celebrities are, and young. An Indian friend (east), very dark skin, accent-less English, talks about this issue of being pegged as black by sight. She can put on an exaggerated Indian accent and riff on the stereotypes to crack people up, but there is heartache and anger beneath.

Hollywood seems to underestimate the expanded audience that would result by bringing more diversity to the entertainment table, how offering wider choice would expand our viewer curiosity and tastes. Recently, I watched a Chinese war epic called Curse of the Golden Flower (full disclosure: borrowed the dvd because it starred Yun-Fat Chow, but still...), and learned all kinds of neat things about the 10c Tang dynasty, plus was treated to a narrative that dealt with epic human themes: love/betrayal/war/honor, in addition to juicy roles for women–two as mother/daughter warriors able to dispatch several dozen male adversaries at a time with only their swords. My initial bias was that Chinese warrior movies hold nothing for me, but I was wrong, and I was delighted to be wrong! Now I’m on the look out for more.

I loved The Wire for similar reasons, like a Shakespearean tragedy, or Greek drama: good people who are flawed, bad people who are noble, love/betrayal/war/honor, juicy roles for women and men, old and young, beautiful and not so beautiful. Police, politicians, union workers, drug dealers, educators, social workers, and journalists are heros and villains both. Life is a messy business, people are a mash up of violence, love, sex, politics. The Wire won very few awards from the entertainment industry, yet Harvard teaches a course on it. If you saw it, I would be interested in knowing what you thought. In any case, television seems to be expanding the possibilities, and hopefully, Hollywood will follow.
@greenheron Saw Curse of the Golden Flower beautiful movie. The Wire is addictive, and I think you're right it is a modern Greek tragedy. Hollywood like any White medium tends to judge primarily their own work, and every so often they are reminded they are supposed to be the cradle of liberalism and they must act accordingly. As to your Indian friend I know that the Indo-Chinese either ignore or obfuscate the fact that they were also involved in the African slave trade and therefore have Africans in their history. It is almost as ridiculous as the Dominicans calling themselves burnt Indians though they share the same heritage as the people from Haiti who are Africans.
Thanks for this. It;s a keeper reread.
I knew zilch about this until yesterday.
Public Radio did a 'piece' and you help.
. . . "I mean it, I can't tell you." - Yes
I saw you on the O.S. Feed. Thank You
I gotta get away from these great reads
Send to editor for a green jade toothpick
a cranky editor

his CEO buying

pair of suspenders
heehaw . . .
Google HOSS for hoe