Everybody Has a Mammy: The Productive Discomfort of Louise Beavers' Movie Maids

Article excerpt

Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. (Berry)

[1] Louise Beavers appeared in over 125 films between 1923 and 1960 yet her body of work has received very little attention. In her tearful 2001 Oscar acceptance speech, Halle Berry remembered Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll, but not Louise Beavers, a woman who appeared in more films than all three actresses combined. Film historians have similarly paid more notice to black actresses who had lead roles in a handful of films than to Beavers, who played a servant in so many. The lack of work on Beavers isn't entirely surprising, however, because her lowly position in the Hollywood hierarchy makes her a difficult figure to write about. Although she made as many films as the white stars she appeared alongside, she didn't produce as much material for scholars to analyze. In each of her film roles she often accumulates less than five or ten minutes of screen time and she is missing from many of the extra-cinematic texts that researchers mine because she wasn't central to the production or promotion of her films. The fact that Louise Beavers played a series of domestics that seem indistinguishable from one another has also probably led to the dearth of critical writing about her. In some films her characters don't even have names; they are known only as "maid" or "cook" in the closing credits, contributing to the notion that her film roles were unmemorable. Critics may also be uncomfortable with the subservience she embodies in each of her roles. Like Halle Berry, who associated herself with the light-skinned black leading ladies who were promoted in Hollywood as exotic variations on the white ingenue, critics have largely ignored Beavers, whose large, darked-hued body marked her as starkly different from her white co-stars and therefore, according to Hollywood's racial logic, unsuitable for erotic spectacle or narrative prominence. She played a series of maids and cooks who have been described as mammy and "Aunt Jemima" stereotypes, characters who were defined by their excessive loyalty to the white employers. Beavers was one of several black actors whose submissive, child-like servants, and desexualized domestics made the white leads look smart, powerful, and desirable by comparison. Some actors performed their domestic roles with a sarcasm or edge that tempered their subservience, but Beavers usually delivered her lines with a straightforward cheerfulness that implied that she enjoyed her position; consequently, her presence on screen often makes viewers cringe. In short, Beavers' movie maids can be difficult to talk about and embarrassing to watch but in this essay I will argue that the value of her screen work lies precisely in the discomfort she induces.

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[2] An analysis of each one of Louise Beavers' one hundred plus film performances is beyond the scope of this essay so I will focus on her most representative roles in the decade she worked most steadily, the 1930s. Beavers' roles in She Done Him Wrong (1933), Bombshell (1933), and Made for Each Other (1939) placed her opposite three stars that epitomized white female Hollywood glamour in the period: Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard. The abundance of black movie maids was, in part, a reflection of the large number of black women concentrated in the domestic labor force in the period and Beavers' performances in these films helped define the ideal of domestic servitude in white households. In addition, the movies showcase Beavers' acting range: She Done Him Wrong and Bombshell reveal Beavers' comedic skills; while Made for Each Other demonstrates her dramatic sincerity. …