When Black Characters Speak: Do They Need to Watch What They Say on TV and in Movies
Last year when the Oscar hopeful “The Help” hit theaters, some critics took the film to task for its portrayal of female black housekeepers in the 1960s U.S. Deep South. More specifically, they took issue with the way the housekeepers spoke, which was not too far removed from how blacks supposedly were expressing themselves circa a century or two earlier.
What is this? “Gone with the Wind”?
As a writer, I despise ungrammatical speaking, and I sometimes wish that black-themed films that take place in another place and time would take a cue from films set in non-English-speaking countries where all of the characters speak perfect English (2008′s Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Reader,” for example), but I get it. It’s supposed to add color to the screenplay. No one would dare dis “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a fantastic book set in Florida in the early 20th century, for the dialogue of its black characters, which is sometimes tough to slog through.
While I didn’t have a problem with the way the title characters spoke in “The Help,” I don’t think the film would have lost much if Viola Davis had spoken in her normal voice, which is actually quite mellifluous in grammatically correct mode. In “Eat Pray Love,” it was almost as lovely as all of those international vistas that Julia Roberts kept trekking to.
Now a similar criticism is being lobbed at the episode of “The Young and the Restless” that aired on January 5 on CBS. In it, Harmony, a recovering drug addict portrayed by Daytime Emmy winner Debbi Morgan, who played Pine Valley Hospital Chief of Staff Angie Hubbard in her previous role on “All My Children,” referred to Phyllis Newman, her boss, as “Miss Phyllis.” (Important note: She was speaking to another character, not to Phyllis herself.)
At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until I started seeing complaints popping up all over soap-website message boards. The general gist of them: It’s 2012. Why is a grown black woman referring to her boss as “Miss Phyllis” when the rest of the characters, adults and kids alike, call her, simply, “Phyllis”?
Now I must admit, since Morgan’s debut on the show a few months ago, I’ve cringed several times when the character has lapsed into street speak (in much the same way that I do whenever Miranda Bailey — a skilled surgeon and a sassy black woman because, well, she sounds like one — opens her mouth on “Grey’s Anatomy”). Not only is it unnecessary for someone who has spent many years turning her life around off screen, but it’s kind of beneath an actress as skilled and intelligent as Debbi Morgan.
That said, although I understand the criticism of the “Miss Phyllis” bit, I think it’s been fueled by years of degradation and disrespect of black characters and black talent on the show. What Harmony said actually was pretty consistent with the character as written and performed up to now. I don’t see it as thinly veiled racism on the part of the writers. The two characters, Harmony and Phyllis, have developed a quick bond and respect for each other, and I saw it more as an equivalent of “Miss Thing,” a diva marker that was quite popular in the 1990s.
I have white female friends who sometimes refer to each other as “Miss [insert first name here].” It’s intended as a term of endearment as opposed to a reflection of one’s ethnicity or station in life. I have friends who call me “Mr. Jeremy” from time to time, simply to shake things up. I’ve never done it myself, but if I were to let a “Mr.” or “Miss” slip into casual conversation, it certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with my race or with the race of whomever I was speaking to. I know what decade I’m living in!
And so does Harmony, I’m sure. As I mentioned before, I see it as being more or less true to the character (which doesn’t let the writers completely off the hook — read on). She refers to Katherine Chancellor, a woman in her 80s whom everyone on the show calls by her first name, as “Mrs. Chancellor.” Hell, I’ve been doing the same since I first started watching “The Young and the Restless” with my mother in the ’70s. She’ll be “Mrs. Chancellor” to me until the day she dies — or I do.
As for “Miss Phyllis,” Harmony can call Phyllis Newman whatever she wants to — everyone else does, and usually it rhymes with “witch.” I’ve got bigger fish to fry with the character of Harmony: I think a general cleaning up of her language, particularly her pronunciation and syntax, is in order. I’m sure Debbi Morgan is trying to differentiate between this character and Angie Hubbard, whom she played for so many years, but I think she can do so without sounding like she just stepped off the set of a hip-hop video.
Rather than focusing on one small line on “The Young and the Restless,” I wish the crusade against “Miss Phyllis” would shift its focus past “Y&R” to hip-hop stars who massacre English or treat it like its their second language. More kids are listening to them and emulating them than Harmony, or Viola Davis in “The Help.”
The kids in America can use “Miss” and “Mr.” and “Mrs.” as much as they like, as long as they know that there’s a difference between “personal” and “personally,” that “I could care less” does not equal “I couldn’t care less,” and unless you’re speaking Spanish, or some other language, double negatives are just plain wrong.
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