Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Help -- A Digressive Rant

I really didn't want to see this movie.  Some of you remember how back in the day we went to a particular movie just because black people were in it.  It was a rare treat and an act of racial solidarity. At first everyone was a maid or a tap dancing darkie but eventually we would get respectable films like To Sir With Love. Then in my young adulthood we had the pleasure of the so called blaxsploitation films. Movies with all black casts criticized for stereotyping us.  But the music was fine and the women beautiful. ( Remember the Book of Numbers?  I knew bookies growing up but they were all women ... I digress).  Then there was the civil rights movie.  Usually with a white heroine or hero who saves the life for us poor downtrodden colored folk in the tradition of To Kill A Mockingbird. Films like Mississippi Burning and The Long Walk Home (Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg.  Keep this one in mind).
Queen Latifah, Set It Off
By then, the mid 1980's onward, I no longer felt obligated to see every movie with a black actor in it. We were ubiquitous. I only went to the serious ones, or the ones with cute girls (anything with Halle Berry), singing nuns (Sister Act I and II)  or space aliens attacking the earth (Men in Black I and II). My idea of a great movie is Set It Off. Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberley Elise.  Poor Black women getting by. And who can resist a bull dagger and a semi-automatic weapon?

So I have become resentful of movies I have to see. But even though I avoided reading the book I knew I had to see The Help.  We went last night, first discussing which theater would likely have the most black people in the audience. We first went to the Regal Cinema in Montrose, outside Akron.  It was closest to us. As we were standing in a long line with a lot of elderly and middle aged white people who apparently loved the book we decided to head to north Akron.  Indeed, at Chapel Hill the crowd was smaller with pockets of middle aged and elderly black women.  At least there would be a few of us laughing at the same jokes.

I read an interview with the amazing Viola Davis (the maid Miss Abileen) who stars in the film.  She said that for her they should have called the movie The Pressure Cooker.  She went on to tell a story that many of us know. Like her, my mother and grandmother were domestics.  I suspect my great and twice great grandmothers were as well.  While they, Mom and Grandma, didn't live in the South (we are at least 5 generations in Ohio) that doesn't mean they didn't experience segregation, poor pay and bad housing.  Cousins from my mother's generation remember living near settlements of recent migrants from the south.  Akron constructed what cousin Richard called "shantytowns" on a hillside in their neighborhood. The Chapmans and the Finneys (my mother's side of the family) were both live-in domestics and day help,  both the men and the women.  I have aunts who helped raise the white children of their employers.  They loved those children.  It is one of the fundamental contradictions of the black labor experience in the post-bellum era, that ability to love a child who is going to grow up to apparently hate you and then hope to raise up their child in the hope they will love you back. It pleased some of the womenfolk in my family to no end when a white woman would look in the stroller transporting one of my light skinned siblings or cousins and mistake them for a white child.  I was raised with the hope that I would not be anybody's maid.  And while my housekeeping skills are considerable I did meet their expectations.  If you want a more historical analysis of Black people's experience in domestic service please see the excellent critique by The Association of Black Women Historians as well as their short but important reading list.

Hattie McDaniel, Gone With TheWind

It is from this context that I went to see The Help.  My first reaction, as the movie ended, "White people sure take up a lot of space."  And they had to.  How else could we be sympathetic to their suffering when a single glance from Viola Davis could express centuries of abuse, torture, disregard and grief? Except for Ms. Davis' character, Miss Abileen, just about everyone else -- white and black --  was a caricature of a stereotype. Octavia Spenser seems to have been cast as Miss Minnie in order to visually remind us of all those maids/mammies of  earlier film eras -- Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind, Ethel Waters in Pinky  -- with a little Aunt Jemima for good measure. That Miss Minnie is considerably more dangerous than them (if equally defenseless) is a relief.  The young white mothers are particularly poorly written and generally irritating.  Sissy Spacek portrays what would have become of her character from the Long Walk if she hadn't stood up for her maid in that film,  drunken, doddering, eventually redeemed old lady.  And Allison Janney does another excellent turn as a racist mother with a secret (remember Hair Spray?  She was brilliant as the demented Prudy Pringleton). 

I once attended a MLK Day event in Albany, GA. After a parade of Christian themed puppet shows, gospel groups and skits a  former or current Miss Georgia (I can't now remember)  got on the stage, all blonde enthusiasm, and declared "This is what Dr. King wanted for us, that we all just get along."  And that is all the creators of The Help want for us.  That we get along and leave the theater feeling good. 

This is a film about women and while their portrayal is shallow, white men are merely ornamental. That there seems to be almost no men in the lives of the maids in The Help is inexplicable.  What few men appear reinforce the perception that black men were either irrelevant or inherently dangerous. This was a potent fiction for white women in the South even as the reality of all black people's lives was largely invisible to them.  So their characterization, in a film full of caricatures is particularly revealing. They are almost non-existent except for the minister ("Love those who hate you"), an old man wielding a hoe out in the garden (I was waiting for him to begin singing nobody knows the trouble I seen),  two men who are dead -- Miss Abileen's son and Medgar Evers, and Miss Minnie's husband,  the invisible man, who beats her up. George, the "counter boy" at the local restaurant has the only human black male role.

As we left the theater I asked a clutch of older women what they thought.  They loved it, some of them had read the book.  Others were going to read it.  I'm sure one or two of them had been domestics in their day.  They were a bit older than me. Some of them had met Ntosake Shange for the first time in the movie adaptation of For Colored Girls and felt bad that Tyler Perry didn't have one of the roles (That the most recognized black woman film star is Tyler Perry is unnerving. Imagine M'Dea as the Loretta Devine character Juanita/Green -- oh. my. head.)  A lot of the fiction my generation of African-American women reads is not the collected works of Alice Walker or the wondrous tomes of Toni Cade Bambara. They read E. Lynn Harris, Lolita Files, Victoria Murray.  And that's ok. Perhaps like me, they had gotten beyond the need to "hold up the side" by only reading the serious literary fiction of African-American writers. In the past we had all gone to movies to be lifted up by the sight of our people on the screen.  I think that's all they wanted from The Help. That filmmakers haven't gotten past the superficial and inaccurate representations of the white savior/civil rights movie is regrettable.  Perhaps my sister movie goers are more charitable than me, more able to overlook the usurpation of Black women's dignity in the service of white women's redemption than I am. I just feel all the domestic workers in our lives, our mothers and grandmothers, and all those who served in bondage, deserve better than The Help. 


  1. Hi -- Perhaps this is a book vs movie thought, but this, "Usually with a white heroine or hero who saves the life for us poor downtrodden colored folk in the tradition of To Kill A Mockingbird" isn't the Mockingbird I know.

    Indeed, Atticus Finch doesn't save a life; two lives are lost -- and two more threatened -- by his actions and you could argue that by taking a different path that body could would have been down to one. None of the Finches save.

    The key character, of course, is Calpurnia, uniquely able to speak two languages (truly -- this point is made explicit) and navigate laws and customs; white and black culture; and to translate gestures between the parts of Maycomb County.

    There is, as I read and teach the book, no white salvation on offer or in result.

  2. I was referring to the movie, and this piece is, for the most part, about the movie portrayal of black people. I actually love the book and played Calpurnia in my high school production of To Kill A Mockingbird. I never aspired to be an actor but in a mostly white school I was perceived as doing what Calpurnia did in the book although Sr. Christine regularly chastised me for "not sounding black enough." At least I was, as Harper Lee portrayed her, "all angles and bones."

  3. Thank you for this review. I was struggling with whether to even bother seeing The Help,as I am also weary of the "white savior" films. I envisioned this as another, The Blind Side,Mississippi Burning,etc.etc. and I just couldn't see wasting my time. However,I may reconsider largely because of Ms. Davis and Ms.Janney(Prudy Pingleton cracked me up).If I can leave the theater more entertained than pissed off that's a plus.

  4. I am not planning on seeing this movie anyway, I detest anything where black women are depicted as maids, I never read the book, I did read and saw the trailer, I don't care what critics say..."how great this movie is blah blah..no thanks...brings up to much anger for me and sad memories.

  5. I read this:

    before watching the movie. There is no way that white woman could have depicted intimate details of the lives of Black maids so well. The caricatures were spot on though!


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