Well, it’s late summer, and everyone is rushing to hate or defend “The Help”, a surprisingly inoffensive feel-good historic "dramady" that rivals “Steel Magnolias” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” as a realistic portrayal of life in the sixties south, both in terms of black/white relations and women. (consider that carefully as you read on) The mostly female ensemble cast is admirable, though Viola Davis’ stony stoicism, almost the opposite of her impassioned mother in “Doubt”, sometimes made me want to shake her out of her nearly Gandhian stillness in the face of persistent abuse, or at least get her to blink. That the movie so seldom slips close to maudlin melodrama or social slapstick is to its credit. Despite the current crop of kneejerk criticism being raised by concerned black groups and in op-editorials by those who don’t seem to have seen it, after watching it I have to say that it’s a well-crafted, even artful film, if mainstream milquetoast.
That said, it is a film that falls into the very specific category of guileless white people who grow up in a culture of oppression but don't see how bad it is until they befriend an oppressed minority (of any stripe) who opens their eyes. That the black heroines of “The Help” actually survive that revelation is to the story’s credit. The minority triggers of these stories are usually sacrificed for the sins of the hero’s society .
“Cry Freedom”, “The Long Walk Home”, and a host of other movies have told this story before, always from the same liberal white point of view in the end, and all get the same criticism from the same quarter of the black community. Invariably, the biggest complaint is that white writers on the subject of black oppression get more publicity, bigger paychecks and better movie deals than black writers who do the same. This ignores the fact of black writers like Alice Walker and "Sapphire", the author of “Push”, who wrote their own mainstream successful stories of embattled underdog black women rising to empower themselves, with the larger issue raised that they and others like them basically played into the same tropes that are protested in books and movies about blacks by white writers.
I was furious when “The Color Purple” came out with Walker's unrelenting portrayal of black men in it as either misogynistic and violent or too simple or emasculated to be so, and I won't even restart the “Precious”/"Push" debate held on both sides in the black community of artists and writers around me last year. The truth seems to be that if you fit or play into the marketing plan of most mainstream publishers when it comes to minority-based stories, you will be published, and if you do it well enough to plug into an established market for them, you will be successful.
There is one violent black man I spotted in “The Help”, the husband of the second leading black maid, and he is never seen, only heard offstage as he attacks her. There are only three references to him, that scene, one where the "good" though trashy outsider white woman who’s shunned by the others treats a wound he has given the maid, and the voice-over line describing how she has left him. The absent father of Aibileen's idealized and sacrificed son is left unexplained. With no mention in the movie of a husband, divorced or dead, her late son's Christlike aspect leaves us with few options but illegitimacy or virgin birth.
Onscreen we do see a minister who leads his flock with dignity and intelligence that rival Obama’s, and a kindly male co-worker at a restaurant who’s seen several times, both holding down a job and reading, and who even offers to walk one of the women home when they are all thrown off a bus after Medgar Evers' assassination, admittedly two more positive black male models than Walker gave me in “Color Purple”.
Is it a fully fleshed out portrayal of the real indignities and dangers faced by blacks, black women in particular, in the south at that time? No. It has no intention of doing or being that, I would think that much is obvious from the ads. I haven’t read the book, and am not terribly interested in doing so, as I’m not a big fan of what I am sure is considered by the publisher to be a specific branch of “women’s fiction". From what I hear of it, the movie is a watered down version of a stronger story in the book, but I doubt much stronger than what I saw. A film that was relatively harmless, self-congratulatory in its liberal satisfaction that everything turned out okay, and aren’t we all happier now that black people can use the same toilets and schools, aren’t being lynched, and we have a black president? ("Get it out quick before this Civil Rights thing blows over" urges Miss Stein, the pointedly New York Jewish editor supporting the young writer's efforts in "The Help", and the audience of Writer's Guild East members roared, as they were meant to...)
Symptomatic of the film’s vision of racial injustice is the big revelation (spoiler alert) late in the film is that the black heroine’s son didn't die in some terrible racist incident like being lynched for whistling at a white girl like Emmet Till, as we fear until then, but because of being hit by a truck at work while carting wood. He dies after he’s taken to the “black hospital” instead of the white one, which can’t do anything for him. (As the repeated iconographic photo of him is of a youthful black intellectual, one can only assume he was carrying two by fours on a construction site to earn enough to get the hell out of Mississippi.) Sadly, the revelation only seems inspired to make viewers shake their heads in regret, sure that if they’d only had Obamacare then, he would have been all right. In "The Help" the South's problem in the sixties was Jim Crow -- separate toilets, hospitals, and systems of legal justice, with blacks getting the short end of the stick on all. Not a rigid, centuries old, institutionalized and literally dehumanizing social order that predated apartheid.
If there is any danger in films like this, it is that they give attentive audiences the impression that these are problems of the past. Even “Precious” planted itself securely in the late eighties, the decade the book was set in, so modern audiences could distance themselves from the social horrors it portrayed. That, and the tendency of films like this to want to have it both ways -- to parade the more lurid aspects of poor black life, wife-beating, prostitution, incest, rape, addiction, past viewers who shake their heads and crane their necks to catch every minute, while they play up the nobility of the embattled soul who rises above it all. It is a salvation usually reached with outside help from someone who represents the mainstream audience these movies cater to, someone the studios obviously think white people need to care about those different from them -- either ethnically, as in “The Help”, or by social class, as in “Precious”, with the light-skinned minority teacher who is her sole supporter. "One of the good ones", another familiar and essential part of the formula, the safely assimilated minority who acts as a translator/bridge between the two worlds.
At the end of both those films, as with many of them, the minority protagonist is left on her own, standing on the street , stripped of everything but her plucky spunk and her newly won conviction that she is somebody(while Skeeter, the white writer, generously splits her $600 advance with all the maids and heads to New York for an editorial job at Harper and Row, with Aibileen's blessing and a new wardrobe bought by a now accepting mother). Aibileen's next five minutes or next five years are of no concern to the author or filmmaker, or the teary audience, any more than the plausibility of her expressed dream of becoming a writer (though she does know a junior editor at Harper and Row now) -- only that moment of epiphany as the music and camera soars. What’s important is that for that last five minutes before you walk away, you believe in the dream made for you, that we can all face overwhelming odds and stand tall in the face of adversity, that no matter how much they take away, we can still be proud. The audience can leave to face their own crises, minor in comparison, and feel as empowered as the inspiring figure they left behind on the big screen as the credits rolled.
Ultimately, the best critical response to the film has been the basic truth that if anyone wants their real story told, they have to get out there and tell it. If you can’t do it yourself, find authors and writers who do and support them. They’re out there, at least one for everybody. As long as the only black writers and filmmakers who get millions from the black community are Tyler Perry and his ilk, that is all we will be given as mainstream fare.
If most of us like that (and I personally prefer Perry's plays to his movies because he leaves out the damn singing, the best part of his show, and the only reason to sit through the broad slapstick, cardboard characters, and morality play plots!) then the minority of us need to stop bitching when white artists get bigger budgets and more attention.
With the technical possibilities open today, no one can claim they can’t make a movie. Use your friends, use their homes, shoot on digital, but before you do, go on Netflix, Hulu or your local video store and learn the damn language. I spent three years in college film classes watching films to learn film-making, and now anyone can single frame through Hitchcock’ shower sequence or any other movie made before or after, for the price of a DVD rental. Go on Kickstarter.com and raise funds, or join your local public access channel, take their training and use their equipment.
Don’t let Hollywood or anyone else tell you who you are. If “The Help” offends you after you’ve seen it, tell your friends, then find the films or writers who tell your story and support them. But don’t whine that one single movie doesn’t do the work that no one else has taken the time to do. Whatever else the book is, it’s an audacious concept for a novel, and it begs the question, why didn’t someone really do that, decades ago, if not now?
Why is it only now that the movie is out that anyone seems to care about these women’s stories as they protest this one, when I see them being played out daily in New York, in my own Park Slope neighborhood, where Caribbean nannies herd adopted Asian babies around for white affluent parents who spend all of their time working for large sums of money, sure that they’re providing their children with everything? Where nannies are sent to work at the Food Coop by the new affluent influx to the Slope with the excuse that “she’s one of the family” -- though one who’s sent away each night and paid every week -- where is the film of their story?
I’ve heard the complaints about “The Help” reviving the image of the ever-patient “mammy”, when she’s never left us. Who is Oprah, but America’s Ultimate Mammy, offering unconditional love and heartfelt advice, along with a well-padded maternal hug? Why can’t she keep the weight off? Because she's blessed and cursed. Consciously or unconsciously, she knows damn well that skinny Oprah can never be the warm cuddly fat black mammy America wants to tell them, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” -- Aibileen's repeated mantra to make her lady's "churren" feel good about themselves and the core message of "The Oprah Show" for the last 25 years. I am so glad for her that she is finally freed of having to personally act as the ultimate incarnation of that age-old icon.
We still have mammies spreading their chubby arms wide all across America, especially here in New York, and if the current debate about “The Help” is to be of any worth, then we have to stop complaining about what it doesn’t do historically, look around us to see its mirror in our current world, and deal with that better.
In the aftermath of the dismissal of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case, we have to consider the lives of the real modern day help with more scrutiny. Whether his accuser is a brazen liar out for money who's prostituted herself in the past to customers in the hotel (and if so, why risk that steady gig for one big score?) or a hapless maid who was bullied into intercourse by a man with power over her, there are more important issues raised by “The Help” than historical accuracy.
It’s time to worry about the real working women of today and their plight now, not those of a bygone age, no matter how poignant or how much that past still haunts us. A bill to protect the rights of 200,000 domestic workers, from nannies and maids to professional caregivers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women of color, has been fighting to be passed for five years now. Five years. You want to see a better more realistic movie about the rights of "The Help"? Start there.For more on the domestic workers bill, go to the links below: