Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Black Moms in Hollywood: Can You Name One Positive Portrayal?

Be clear: I really do adore Mo’Nique—her humor, her hustle, her demand that we love ourselves exactly the way we are, no matter who stands at the ready to tear us down. And I especially loved her in Precious. Despite that I wrote HERE about my hesitancy to see the movie, I did end up seeing Precious and thought Mo'Nique was scary brilliant as an abusive, mentally-ill, poverty-stricken mom. Transformative. And she deserved that Oscar.

I feel the same way about Sandra Bullock, whom I absolutely adore for being down-to-earth and uber cute. I didn’t see The Blind Side (partly because I’ve grown quite tired of the “white savior” movies that keep creeping onto the movie screen), but I was happy for Bullock’s win nonetheless, if only because I’m a fan of her past work.

But, well, you know there’s a “but” coming. How many more times will Hollywood expect me to plunk down $10 per ticket (plus doggone near another $20 for a bag of popcorn and one of those slushie Coca Cola drinks) to see movies that portray black moms as pathological, drug-addicted, abusive, broke-down, dumb ass, you-ain’t-sh#t-and-ain’t-evah-gone-be-sh#t, baby mamas?

Like seriously:

Monster’s Ball featured a poverty-stricken, verbally-abusive mom who was so dumb that she didn’t realize the son of a raving racist, who was doing things to make her “feel good,” actually killed her child’s father.

The Blind Side was about a white southern mom who takes in a black teenage football player who’s never even had his own bed because, well, his mother is a poverty-stricken crack head who can’t keep hold of her kids.

Precious: Where do I even begin to describe the depraved, inhuman, patently foul infection that was Mary in this movie?

Daddy’s Little Girls features an abusive, foul-mouthed mother who gives up her daughters to take up residence as the queenpin in her boyfriend’s drug organization, and then lets her new man beat up on her youngest daughter and make a drug dealer out of her oldest child.

See the running theme here? I mean I really had to stop and think hard to come up with a movie featuring a black mom who loves her children AND is raising them up right AND isn’t sucking on the pipe/collecting a welfare check/cussing out the babies/depending on others to step in and save her children, and I was hard-pressed to name one. Like, I seriously couldn’t come up with one.

Help me out, MyBrownBaby family: Am I wrong to be annoyed by the portrayal of black moms in mainstream Hollywood? Should I expect more, or is this it for us? I mean, I respect Precious supporters' arguments that we have to examine the good, the bad, and the ugly that happens in our community, but er, um, where is the good? I mean, can you name ONE movie with a black mom with some sense? (No, Denzel Washington/Will Smith/Morgan Freeman/Laurence Fishburne arm candy does NOT count as a positive portrayal of black moms; I want to know which films actually give an indepth, solid delving into the life of a black woman that does NOT portray her as a foul, drug-addled, somebody-please-save-the-babies-from-that-crazy-ass-monster mom).

Two snaps up and a twist to anyone who can name one…

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  1. Angela Bassett in Akeelah and the Bee? I had to think for a long time. You're spot on, as usual.

  2. The Hip-Hop Dad said...
    Gabrielle Union in The Perfect Holiday

    Wendy Raquel Robinson in Rebound

    Nicole Behari in American Violet (based on a true story)

    Jada Pinkett Smith in Hawthorne on TNT

    this a very good question and to me it seems as if Hollywood has very bad standards when it comes to black women. If she's of lighter complexion she can be the hero or be the "arm candy" for the lead actor but if she's darker then well she has to play the struggling woman role etc..etc..so I would say that it is hard to find movies where black women play non-cliché characters.

  3. You bring up great points. Some of the movies that Hip Hop dad mentioned came to mind.

    Even though this was a tv movies, Sins of the Mother portrayed a mother that used to fit into one of the categories that you mentioned but she rose from that and her life was worth emulating in some ways.

    I have no desire to watch Precious because of all that you have mentioned.

  4. Boy... when I saw the title I didn't expect to be as stumped as I am. How about the ladies of the Secret Life of Bees? They weren't actual mothers but they were loving and maternal. Thats all I got...

  5. I agree with all the other comments and it DID take me a while to post a comment because I was trying to think SO HARD. Everything I came up w/ was on TV.

  6. I FINALLY thought of one: both moms in Love & Basketball... they loved their kids, raised them up well and reasonably normal, and turned out some fine human beings. (One of my favorite movies ever for many reasons, including this one.)

    And Hip Hop Dad: American Violet was definitely a good one, too—totally forgot about that one.

  7. Um, what about Soul Food? The mom was a no-nonsense matriarch and Vivica Fox's character was a sweet mommy to little Ahmad.

  8. I couldn't think of any until reading the comments. And I won't see The Blindside for the same reason you mention - the white savior theme is so tired.

  9. Perhaps it doesn't count because it is biography-but the (Disney?) Movie of Ruby Bridges portrays a faith strong, visionary, loving, empathetic mother and father.

  10. I agree they are far and few in between. I was hesitant to watch the blind side but it was a movie that I was able to share with my children. My son is one of the biggest sports/football fan only @ age 11.
    The dialogue it produced was interesting...why all momas aren't good momas..would you help someone off the street (boasted my 6 and 9 year old girls) look what happend when you do....its not where you come from ist where you are going...
    I have been forced to DVR some "family matters" for my kids and they have turned out to be great fans of the show..I believe that we are not portrayed as strong as we would like and its sad.Perhaps if we continue to shape these little brown minds we have they can become those writers and producers or directors..bound for change..stay up!

  11. hmm...I liked Taraji P Henson's character in Benjamin Buttom...she was kind and loving. I can't think of any other mothers on the big screen (besides the ones mentioned above.) There are some reality TV moms that I like (i.e. - Justine Simmons)

  12. Damn - I couldn't think of one movie portrayal off the top of my head, until y'all posted some. I don't go see any of the "white savior" types of movies anymore ... for me - tired of them. We can save ourselves and have saved ourselves. I guess the role models for my son will come from me. I'm a good Mom, I'm a strong Mom, I'm a loving Mom - and I don't give a damn WHAT Hollywood has to say.

    But I will do Hollywood one better - we got Michelle Obama - the REAL DEAL. So stick that in your stereotypical script Hollywood.

  13. beyond the black mothers already mentioned above:

    the mothers in malcolm x (malcolm's mother and betty shabazz)

    trey's mother in boyz n the hood (angela b)

    the mother in crooklyn

    the mother in 'claudine' (correct title? the 70s flick with james earl jones as a garbage man)

    i could go on forever.

  14. I couldn't think of any until I read the comments as well. So I guess there are as many good roles as there are bad ones. Still I don't like the fact that we can be depicted as such in the role that Monique played. I didn't see the movie but I am sooo happy and proud of her for getting such a prestigious award. I love Monique and this has really put her on another realm in hollywood. Once you get an Oscar you are considered Hollywood Royalty and I am happy for her, on count of that.

  15. Great post. I guess what bothers me is that Hollywood will nominate but not award black actors and actresses for potrayals of positive role models in the black community. I was floored when Denzel Washington was passed on his incredibly portrayal of Malcolm X but awarded for his role as a corrupt, violent police officer. I don't even want to talk about Halle Berry's role in Monster's Ball. I can't help but to believe that Hollywood often forces us to see ourselves through the eyes of their clouded and misguided view of the black community.

    I saw Precious as a wake up call more than anything. This story is happening everyday in our community and it seems that the only dowry we give to future generations is that of poverty, drug abuse, and ignorance. I know that isn't true because a quick glance to our nation's capital reminds my children that the sky is truly thier only limit. I would like to see more positive depictions of both mother's and father's in Hollywood and on 125th street. Great post!

  16. I didn't see Precious because little I saw of Monique's character in the commercials reminded so much of my mom that it was painful. The only character I could come up with was Claire Huxtable till I read the others.

  17. @TMass: Thank you for that thoughtful comment. This is, indeed, what I was trying to get at. I just read a piece in which Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell said the “’Precious’ & ‘Blind Side’ wins together were a double gut punch for representations of black motherhood.” And I couldn't agree with her more. I'm not saying that these portrayals aren't valid; I'm simply suggesting, like you, that Hollywood keeps shoveling these crappy portrayals of us onto the film screens for mass consumption, and suggesting that this is ALL that we are. Of course, there are mothers out there who are like Mary. Black ones and white ones, too. But really, is this the extent of our creativity when it comes to creating images of black folk in mainstream media? We're STILL leaning on Claire Huxtable—a character from a 20-year-old sitcom—for a positive image of black moms? This is most sad.

    @Spirit Equality: All great examples, but the mothers in Malcolm X were real women; Trey's mom in Boyz in the Hood sent her son away to live with his Dad; the mother in Crooklyn barely got any play and both her sons were criminals (a murderer and a drug dealer, which kinda throws her motherhood skills into question); and the mother in Claudine was, again, a character in a movie from 40 years ago. So again, I ask, where are the well-rounded, positive portrayals of black motherhood that extend beyond the periphery of the main story? Or am is my definition too limited?

  18. I have to agree w/ Brown sugar babies.."I will be my childrens strong role model"...that coupled with my great husband and the love of christ..but it would be nice just for me as an adult to see positive black couples portrayed in the movie...man..woman...more often especially since the movies are not getting any cheaper! : )

  19. Great post! Some good roles are mentioned above and these three came to mind also: Regina King in Jerry Maguire, Loretta Devine @ Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale, and the mother from The Inkwell.

  20. Dang, I was all set to say American Violet-of course, it's been said...and I'm at a loss for any others. I was just telling/educating a non-Black friend about the method to my movie selection madness and how I hold onto my money with hopes that somehow my purse strings will do a small part to help navigate the film world. It is disheartening and I wonder how the actresses rationalize loaning their faces-even in fiction, to a very real problem in cinema.

  21. I think somebody should petition Tyler Perry and 'nem to do something mo' better!! (BTW.. Where I live movie tickets are $15.. Popcorn+ $25. Me refusing to pay that: Priceless. LOL) Just received Precious via Netflix! I'm sure it won't disappoint.

    The reason Hollywood portrays Black women in such a way, is because THEY SAY it's what we want to see. And I think it's true. I refused to watch House of pain thinking it was another stereotypical show about black folk acting fools! Until I started watching it. Same with Meet the Browns. I can live without House of Pain but I love me some Mr. Brown! Ionknowwhy!!

    Let's face it.. It is what it is. We are who/what we are. And we look good when we're happy and content and prosperous.. but even better when we're beating up our women and cussing out our children! And we like seeing ourselves on t.v. and the big screen in pain and recovering from it..And going overcoming and taking it to church at the end. White people are no different. They have just as many broke down hurt people.. trashy bitchy mothers who don't know better. But nobody cares!

    Hollywood is just going to keep on giving us what we want! Admit it. It's what we want.

  22. Hello my beautiful sister. I cringed when I read the descriptions that you gave of women. You noticed I said women. Women who happen to have the same shade as yourself .

    You gave a description of what you felt in your heart. I just wanted to say there are just to many black women that have been portrayed beautifully . I dont want to go there . But I couldnt help wondering if you or your beautiful children and you and they are beautiful because I saw pictures of you . By the way how to do you keep your beautiful figure ? Darlene you have never been hungry, you have never not known love , I come to your conclusion because you spoke so fondly of your dad. You did not have to raise yourself. If someone were to take you and place you in an environment from birth where you were deprived of morals ethics the basics shelter food clothing as a child unable to work and fend for yourself . IF we put you in that type of environment from birth and looked at you at the age you are now . What do you think we would see. I would venture to say if would not be the image that you possess now. Human beings come into this world by no fault of their own. I promise you there is not one that comes into the world saying I want to be the dread of society . They come into the world eventually wanting the best things and the best life like everybody else. I WOULD LOVE TO SEE YOU AND SOME OF YOUR AWESOME SISTERS GET TOGETHER AND PRODUCE SOME GOOD QUALITY PRODUCTIONS , BE IT ON YOU TUBE FOR STARTERS OR Ustream. I WOULD SUPPORT YOU .The same way I SUPPORT YOU. But you know what I WOULDNT DO . I WOULD NEVER SEE YOU OR AN IMAGE OF YOU ON THE SCREEN AND NOT KNOW YOUR STORY AND CALL YOU SOME OF THE MOST VILE AND HURTFUL NAMES THAT ARE LACED WITH VENOM. A lot of street people have PHd's and they live like what could be equated as animals and yet they possess more education than most will ever acquire. I have been through things that would take out half of this world. I have seen suffering up close and personal and never did or never will i feel like I have reached a place in this world where I can sit HIGH and look low. THAT'S A HORRIBLE PLACE TO BE . YOU BE BLESSED MY BEAUTIFUL SISTER.

  23. Who's Darlene?
    Anyway, y'all need to open up the category just a bit to include good wives in Hollywood. Dang, what's wrong with being a good wife?

  24. Loretta Devine in This Christmas..... I'm trying. lol. OK... Beyonce in Obcessed or Halle in Things We Lost in the Fire.

  25. Denene et al, I agree that the positive roles of black women in a leading role, not as the main character, are almost nonexistent in mainstream Hollywood. Art is not imitating the full range of characters we have in the real world. But we have to create our own reality when it comes to art. Who are the producers? Who backs these films? Do we as a black community support the more positive films or do we just wait for the DVD? There are lots of multicultural average Janes, whether living by upper-, middle-, or lower-class economic standards, but we need to support those who create these stories that we feel must be told, and reject the stories that we don't. Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua are not the only ones who can tell our stories. Jada Pinkett Smith and Tracey Edmonds have put their feet into the industry as directors and producers, but we need more Black women to get behind the lens.

  26. As a Caucasian mom of Irish descent living in the suburbs of Detroit I find this topic fascinating. I thought of a lot of the movies mentioned above, but I didn't see the mom from Gifted Hands. She was amazing.

    One thing I find frustrating in the film industry is the portrayal of men/dads. It seems a lot of the time they are portrayed as clueless idiots. Not to mention that white men are so often cast as serial killers or just plain mad crazies. It's disturbing what some see as entertainment.

    One question in regard to those of you that have an aversion to seeing The Blind Side: Does it give it any more merit that it is based on a true story where the young man being helped is an actual sports star that we can see and relate to right now? That is the part that is appealing to me. Mind you, I am not a sports fan. However, I am white, so maybe that effects my perspective on the matter. lol

    I've really enjoyed my stop by your blog. I think it's a wonderful resource with thought provoking content.

  27. You are so right. It's ashame that we haven't gotten far enough to make a feature picture with the mother playing a loving role. There are positive mothers in a few but they aren't playing pivotal parts.


  28. @Anonymous: Thank you for your comments and your kind words. I respect your thoughts and your experience, but I think you confuse my contempt for movie characters with my love for my people. Let me explain: The characterizations I gave in this post are about the one-dimensional, ridiculously stereotypical portrayals of black women—specifically, black mothers—in major Hollywood films. They are not about the people who find themselves in these situations in real life. All too often, the characters in the movie have no back story; we have NO idea how they ended up poor, desperate, abusive or abused, addicted, homeless (insert your societal ill here). All we get is this ugly portrait shoveled on us from one movie to the next with absolutely no explanation other than what is assumed: This is just the way ALL black women are—period, end of story. I'd argue the same as you: These characters had to have gotten there some kind of way. But we never get to see that part of it—never get the chance to understand and sympathize with the plight.

    Take, for instance, Mary in Precious: She is physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally and sexually abusive to her flesh and blood. From the beginning of the movie straight to the end, she is nothing more than a cold-blooded monster: Slinging frying pans at her daughter's head, slamming her newborn grandchild onto the floor, calling her other grandchild, who is mentally retarded, all out of her name. Insisting to her daughter that she's worthless. She is relentless. And ugly. And dirty. And we haven't a clue why. She just is. Only toward the end of the movie do we get a small glimpse into Mary's mental instability, and even then, it is glossed over, shrouded over in the angry words of a social worker who's not trying to hear the excuses. So we never get a full picture of WHY Mary is the kind of mother she is. Just that she's the worst kind of human being ever known to a child.

    The same goes for Halle Berry's character in Monster's Ball and the crack-addicted mother in The Blind Side, who received such short shrift she might as well have not been in the movie, and the Tasha Smith character in Daddy's Little Girls, whom we're told by the father in the movie wasn't always a crazy woman, but are never given any explanation for what changed her into the cold-hearted mom she ends up being.

    This is all to say that I agree with you: We all have backstories and it is THOSE backstories that need to be examined before we just toss up these images and proclaim them to be true-to-life and the end all to be all. It is, simply, unfair. A truly talented writer or director would be able to convey that without tragically leaning on stereotypes to create what they're passing off as art and entertainment. Poverty and abuse is NOT entertaining. Ignoring the backstories is lazy and, dare I say, racist—and definitely not art.

    And know, too, that just as you require me not to judge someone without knowing their backstory for sure, I urge you to not make any assumptions about my background and my family just because you saw a few pictures of my Dad on FaceBook and see me speak of him in loving ways. We ALL have secrets. We ALL come from somewhere. And not all of those somewheres are peaches and cream—trust.

    I thank you for the food for thought.

  29. Claire Huxtable for me...positivity from every angle - yes black women can be all she was...even in Hollywood.

  30. I thought of Alfre Woodard in Love & Basketball?
    Jennifer Lewis in The Brothers? Precious did not appeal to me because the trailer just looked a bit too dark. I do enjoy Monique's acting abilities. It sounds like she really transformed herself to make this role believeable. It is a thought for me as well why these role are recognized by the academy as great works

  31. Did anyone mention Halle Berry's character in "Losing Isiah"? Again, the portrayal is that of a crack-addicted, yadda yadda stereotypical mother but the character does pulls it together. In my opinion this is the movie Halle should have won an Oscar for not that hot mess "Monster's Ball"!

  32. Her career continued to soar with well-received roles in Bulworht, Losing Isaiah, Dorothy Dandridge and the very popular X-men where she played ice princess Storm.

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