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From mammy to Ma: Hollywood's racist stereotypes

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A new horror starring Octavia Spencer seems to subvert the old caricature of the devoted, dark-skinned care-giver – one still endured by leading black actresses

The history of black women on screen is closely tied up with the mammy figure, a racist caricature divorced from the reality of US race relations during slavery and afterwards. Traditionally depicted as a dark-skinned, overweight woman, wearing a headwrap and shawl, the mammy is employed by a white family to care for their children and is utterly devoted to her charges.

Recently, there has been some progress on this front, as evidenced by the career of Spencer. In addition to her acting, she is a prolific executive producer, whose credits include Fruitvale Station, Ma and — also controversially — this year’s Academy Awards best picture winner Green Book. Yet even she is no exception to the mammy rule. According to IMDb, Spencer has played a maid, nurse or cleaner a total of 21 times, including in two of her three Oscar-nominated performances. What’s more, the majority of these characters exist chiefly to serve the narrative of a white protagonist, by offering homespun wisdom or large-bosomed emotional support.

At the very least, Ma represents a welcome change from this sort of typecasting. The fact that it re-teams Spencer with her director on The Help, Tate Taylor, also opens up the intriguing possibility that Ma might, in fact, be a direct response to The Help’s critics. In a 2017 interview with the Guardian, Spencer discussed the gap between the roles she’s often offered and how she sees herself: “It’s one that it’s hard to break out of because it’s the only box that they want to put you in. And I’m like: ‘I don’t have kids, I’m nobody’s mother! If you ask my friends, they’re like: ‘You are the last person who should be a mom.’ ... I’ve gotten very used to the needs of one. I am a nurturer of the people who I love so that comes, I guess, a little bit natural, but maybe it also is I’m a control freak. When you nurture, you can also control the situation. It’s like I need to take control of this situation because I know best how to do it.”

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