Walt Disney's Song of the South was one of the poorest representations of the mammy figure and one of the last of its era. Whether this was due to the 1942 agreement of producers to curb black stereotypes in their films, the change in social attitudes in which Civil Rights issues gradually supplanted Civil War nostalgia, or the fact that the stereotype was played to the hilt, mammy disappeared from American film for a while. It was a much-deserved retirement.

From D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 through the mid-1940s, the mammy made innumerable appearances--over two hundred of which can be attributed to Hattie McDaniel alone. This is not to fault performers such as McDaniel who portrayed the same character time and again. It was, after all, one of the few acting jobs available to black actresses in an industry that had long emphasized the value of racial authenticity and inferiority.

What is more amazing than the sheer number of times a mammy appeared onscreen is the way in which a few of these performances transcended the stereotype. Producer David O. Selznick and screenwriter Sidney Howard used the mammy as a valuable and multi-dimensional character who helped carry the narrative and reflect contemporary social concerns in their 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Of course it was a stereotype but it was a far more flattering depiction than in Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. This is not meant to justify the use of stock characters and the racial connotations they carry with them. It simply sees Selznick's mammy to mark the ways in which this depiction improved over time and to show how far it still had to go.

Questions of race and representation did not end with the retirement of the mammy figure from film. Even if one does not think of Aunt Jemima hawking pancake mix and other processed foods in the grocery store, many believe the mammy reappeared in shows such as Gimme A Break in which actress Nell Carter portrayed a black woman caring for a household of white children. While she never wore handkerchiefs on her head or spoke in dialect, the comparison seems clear enough. The problem with such a depiction is not necessarily the stereotype it enforces but rather, the way this character demonstrates the void in the rest of the cultural landscape.

James Snead explains in white screens/black images, the coding of such characters occurs through both repetition and the omission of other viable alternatives. As this conclusion is being written, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is considering litigation against television producers of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) because there is not one starring role for any minority actor in any of the new shows scheduled to premiere in the fall.

This new problem seems to be part of a larger movement in television to target teenagers in the same way that recently successful shows such as UPN's teen-drama series, Dawson's Creek has reached this otherwise untapped market (consider it in terms of the Seinfeld phenomena where one popular show about four friends who talk about nothing spawns dozens of other shows with the same premise) rather than institutional racism. But even if the NAACP were to file a lawsuit and the litigation did nothing by itself (as it probably would), questions of race and representation are brought to the forefront of the popular consciousness by such protest. It is, after all, the constant backlash that Disney has felt whenever it re-releases Song of the South in theaters (most recently in 1986) that has prevented the company from issuing the film on home video in the United States.

Even today, the legacy of the mammy in film can serve as a both cultural marker of our past and a sign that questionable forms of representation only changes when enough people demand that it change.