From mom to mom: Hollywood’s favorite racist stereotype

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Octavia Spencer’s latest film is a campy carnival of goosebumps and utter hoot. In Ma, the Oscar winner plays Su Ann, a loner who forms an inappropriate friendship for her age with a group of local teenagers by letting them hang out and party in her basement. There are, however, a few grim conditions: The teenagers must call Su Ann ‘Ma’ and they must never, ever venture upstairs into the main house. That’s because it’s not a great story of intergenerational understanding; it’s a chilling psychological horror from the producer behind Insidious, The Purge and Get Out. And for those with a more in-depth knowledge of the cultural history of the United States, there is another level as well: “Ma” is short for “Mammy,” isn’t it?

The story of black women on screen is closely linked to the figure of the mother, a racist caricature cut off from the reality of American race relations during and after slavery. Traditionally depicted as an overweight woman with dark skin, wearing a headscarf and shawl, the mother is employed by a white family to care for their children and is totally dedicated to her care.

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She was there in DW Griffith’s cinematically seminal and inherently racist 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, defending her master’s house from Union soldiers, and she was also featured in the first ‘Talkie’. , The Jazz Singer, as the subject of Al Jolson’s blackface. serenade. When, in 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor (male or female) to win an Oscar, it was for the role of mom in Gone with the Wind, and when, seven decades later, Spencer herself won an Oscar, it was for The Help, in which she played the role of a chambermaid in the deep south of the 1960s alongside Viola Davis, and which the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) called of “Mammy’s disappointing resurrection”. Between the two, the image of the mother proliferated on the screen. , and it continues to appear – partially disguised or totally unchanged – to the present day.


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