Monday, September 05, 2011

How "The Help" Can Help

In the past few weeks, I had read a number of reviews of "The Help" (one of the hot movies of the summer), but nearly all of the ones I saw began with the words, "I haven't actually seen this movie, but..." followed by a castigation of every possible aspect of the film. Reviews without the benefit of reading the book, seeing the film, or hearing the music send up a sociological flag on my analytical playing field. So despite the fact that I thought I'd probably agree with the reviews even after watching the movie and very concerned that I was about to waste time and money on one more flick about how only White people can save Blacks, I decided I needed to see it. Then one of my Black students who is very forthright about pretty much everything -- and especially race -- told me that she had gone to see it twice and loved it. So today, I gathered up my trepidations and went to the theater.

In brief, I give it an eleven on a scale of one to ten with one being "made a White person look like a Savior-figure while making darkies look like sheep" and ten being "made White people in general look like icy-faced monsters who probably deserve to drown in shallow water while being stung by killer bees and eaten alive by starving red ants simultaneously." I have absolutely never seen a better, more nuanced, more ghastly depiction of what real ordinary White people in the U.S. acted like in the 1960s. The fact that many White people still act the same way today is another point and I'll come back to that momentarily. But I kid you not, White folks walked out of the theater after watching "The Help" today veeeery quietly, while Black folks were talking to no one but each other. It's that kind of flick. I give it a "must see" with a warning: if you have any consciousness at all, this one will piss you slap off and if you haven't gotten ahold of your rage yet, you should probably just go ahead and skip seeing it for now.

The Boxer -- who admitted that, for the first time in the two years we've been seeing each other, the film made him ask the question why he's with a White woman anyway -- and I talked about the film for the rest of the day. And although I'm supposed to be grading papers right now, that obviously ain't happening. Worse than that, I don't even know where to start to do the whole thing any real justice. So I'll focus on one realization I had that I'll be thinking about for a while.

I often hear African-Americans talk about how much White people "hate" them. Sometimes they'll write in a reaction paper or on the back of their contact card on the first day of class when invited to ask anything they want, "Why do White people hate us so much?" And whenever I hear a series of people use the same word over and over, I pay sociological attention. "It isn't 'hate,'" I try to explain. "It's fear...or it's a need to feel superior so as not to feel the inadequacy they really feel..." or whatever. But today, after watching "The Help," when The Boxer said something about White "hate," it finally dawned on me. It's not "hate" most White people feel toward Blacks. It's disdain.

KKKlan members hate people of color (and maybe themselves), but hate is easy to counter. You can hate right back. Besides, people that openly hate others clearly have a screw loose somewhere. And it's reeeeeal easy for ordinary White people to point at a Skinhead and say, "Now that's a racist. I'm not like that at all." And they're not, so they give themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card. And that's that. Then they can go right on being how they are -- so graphically presented in "The Help" that I'm considering giving double extra credit points to any student who'll check it out and write about specific ways it's the same in 2011.

Oh, it's not entirely the same on the surface, though it's sure as heck not buried more than an inch or two deep. Given, nobody's trying to pass legislation that White people must provide separate (but equal, of course) bathrooms if they employ "help" (to protect sweet, innocent little White children from the awful diseases carried by "the coloreds" -- who hug and kiss those White children in front of their parents all day long throughout the movie). But the other stuff "The Help" demonstrates so well, the bold-faced contempt virtually all the Whites in the film exhibit toward people of color routinely and without apology -- that's as public and in-your-face as ever. And interestingly enough, this is at least partially why Black potential viewers may not go to see "The Help," because this aspect of the film is not really being advertised. Everybody knows what Jackson, Mississippi, was like in 1962 and all. But "knowing" this and "seeing" it so well presented by a group of White actors The Boxer was ready to kill by the end of the film (hair-spray, high heels and all) is two different things.

In looking for a photo to illustrate this post, for example, I realized that only one available picture (the one above obviously) held even the tiniest shred of the blatent vitriol that oozes out of the White faces in the actual movie. If most White movie-goers knew how perfectly "The Help" characterizes White people in general (both in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s and right this minute pretty much everywhere in America), they not only wouldn't pay to see it, they'd be bouncing up and down like Daffy Duck all over the internet screaming their outrage.

Mark my words, this movie has the capacity to start some shit, if the word gets out that it lays bare the real ugliness of White disdain. Whites don't wish Blacks ill, by and large. They don't think they're worthy of consideration at all. They don't see Blacks as even a blip on the radar of importance in their lives other than in abject service of one kind or another to Whites (as "help," entertainment, sports, or distraction from the boredom of their whitebread lives). It isn't only that Whites see color, it's that they don't see anything else. So the average White person in America could care less if Blacks live or die. They don't even see Blacks as human. This is why police brutality brings no outcry from the White community. The brutality for the most part only occurs against Blacks -- and Whites don't consider it worth noticing. This isn't hate; it's disdain, which is far more destructive to Blacks than hatred could ever be.  It attacks their sense of self, their personhood, and their connection to both their history and their future.  It sucks the life out of them and then laughs as they struggle to rise above the circumstances created by the contempt of Whites, not just those in power but those with which they come into contact on a daily basis -- their bosses, their teachers, their co-workers, their fellow students, the cashier at the grocery store, the anchorman on television, the woman accepting marriage license applications at the courthouse, wherever they go.  And it's why U.S. society still looks so similar in so many ways to this movie.

Now don't get me wrong. There is much complexity in the film. There are White people in "The Help" who demonstrate relationships with people of color that are complicated in various ways. And this mirrors reality, as well. One of them is the protagonist who is a young journalist wanting to make it as a writer. Does she use the opportunity to write about "The Help" to put herself on the New York publishing map? Yes. Does she know she's jeopardizing the Black women's jobs, safety, freedom and lives? Yes. Does she know she's breaking the law by doing her research and writing her book? Yes. Does she do it anyway? Yes.

But we are offered more than is typical of an evolution of shared experiences with and about women of color who "serve" Whites as "help" that raise the journalist's consciousness. And this can and does sometimes happen in the real world, too. She doesn't "save" anyone, nor seek to. She writes what she's been told by women who honor her with their willingness to tell her. They're not looking for or needing "salvation." They want their story told and the incarceration of one of them gives them the courage to participate in the process. Could they tell it themselves? They do tell it themselves. She just writes it down and then gives them money when she gets it. Do they benefit from the telling? Yes. Does that make her a "savior"? Hardly. Doe she benefit from the telling? Yes. Does that make her a villain? Not in my book. I do the same thing.

I have been and continue to be honored by those people of color who have chosen for more than forty years to teach me what's really going on in this country. I honor them back by giving them my best effort to listen, tell the truth, and to the extent possible, bridge the gap between them and anyone else who will listen. Do I benefit? Sometimes. Is there a cost? Always. Will I stop? Never.

You might want to see "The Help."


veganelder said...

Great review, thanks...I've not seen the movie yet but definitely will now.

I also wanted to point you to a fairly well written piece describing a speciest society ( The author does a fairly good job of making the invisible more seeable.

Sorrow said...

There was a movie that my grandfather loved called " the gentleman's agreement", and when I saw this movie with a dear friend of mine, That movie was brought back to mind.
I thought i would share a couple of her comments, which I thought very interesting and poignant. She was born and raised in Alabama, and graduated from high school in 1962. She told me that the depiction of what it was like for a white women of means at that time was only so-so. She said that to vote, you had to take a test. She said that test was so hard that she was almost in tears, ( this women was a summa cum laude graduate of the women's college of North Carolina )and finally a man came out of the office and knew her father and told her to give him the test, he filled in all the right answers and gave it back to her! Can you imagine? She grew up with "Help", like in this movie, and said that they were invisible to her as she was growing up. She said that she was in her 20's when she realized that the family " cook" was an asian women. She also said that you never ever went anywhere alone, unescorted was not heard of. The only people she knew who went about with out a "proper escort" were the working or white.
Her perspective sitting thru this movie and afterwards was fascinating to me. She came from this era, from this time, and she said " not much has changed you know..I often wonder if instead of freeing the slaves all at once after such a horrible war, did more to keep them oppressed than had they been given rights and privileges gradually over time." she went on to say " my grandfather never had anything nice to say about colored folks, although my grandmother was always trying to find some odd job they could do for her so she could give them food or what nots. It always seemed to me that being thrust into a warn ravaged area with nothing but the cloths on your back, no education and nothing but a need to survive was the cruelest of things to do to another human being. There are a great many people who still look at them and see second class people..."
perspective is such an interesting thing isn't it?

Changeseeker said...

Yes, it is, Sorrow. Your gradmother's prespective is a classic example of the rationalization and justification that many older White people use (in the most delicate language, of course) to explain to each other how -- really -- "the colored people" were just helpless without Whites to direct and care for them. Skip that People of Color had been caring for themselves, each other, and the Whites since they were brought here in chains. The reason so many Blacks did poorly after the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were passed was that Whites made sure they did poorly. Without ever once removing their white cotton gloves, of course -- gentlemen and ladies all.

Sawtooth said...

Read the book "Cane River", so painful. I doubt a movie version could ever do it justice.