Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The Help, not The Cure
If you have seen the movie, The Help, then please continue reading. If you have not, just know I'm about to expose several moments of the film which you may want to experience on your own first. You can just come back and read later.
How many Hollywood movies in recent memory have dealt with the fight for Civil Rights in the 1960's? Not too many. In fact the last one (I believe) was Ghosts of Mississippi, made in 1996 about the death of Medgar Evers. That was 15 years ago.
How many Hollywood movies in recent memory have had African-American women as central, dramatic, heroic characters? I'll wait . . .
On Monday, my wife and I had the rare occasion of being able to go to the movies together, and we saw The Help. She had just read the book, and I . . . well I wanted to make my wife happy. However, I'm very glad I saw this film. The Help is a story set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's and focuses on the life of a maid, Aibileen, who has suffered many injustices and hardships, but currently works in a house where she is forced to use an outhouse to go to the bathroom. A friend of her employer, just home from college and who was raised by an African-American maid herself, is given a job at a newspaper writing about housecleaning, and ends up interviewing Aibileen. However, she soon realizes that Aibileen's personal story is more intriguing than her expertise in house cleaning, and the plot of the movie is set. She sets out to write a book featuring the personal stories and perspectives of maids working in white households in Jackson, knowing that it is against the law, and that there is uncertainty about the consequences in the racially charged climate. Long story short, the maids overcome their own understandable inhibitions and share the stories, simultaneously elevating themselves in their personal lives.
My wife and I both walked away from the movie impressed not only by the performances, but by the achievement of a well balanced story, where courage and fear were highlighted in both black and white characters, and where (ring the bell) the African-American FEMALE character was the narrator, main character, and hero.
Imagine my surprise when the following day I was asked if I had heard the controversy surrounding the film.
Friend: "Did you think the movie was racist?"
Friend: "Yeah, a lot of people are saying that because of the dialect (the way the maids spoke), the absence of sexual harassment experienced by maids from their white male bosses, and the absence of positive, prominent African-American male characters, the movie paints a false picture of that era."
Deep breath . . . here we go.
Let me start by saying that I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and both my father and my grandparents were born and raised in Mississippi. Therefore, I do have connection with that era, these characters, and I certainly know people that are just like the people portrayed in the film. This is part of the reason I was so moved. They nailed the accent - let's move on to a different point.
The statement made by the group criticizing this film can be read here, and they basically want to say that a viewer of this movie should know that this movie does not encompass the complete experience of an African-American woman who worked as a maid in the 60's. Which begs this question . . .
WHAT MOVIE IN THE HISTORY OF MOVIES ENCOMPASSES THE COMPLETE EXPERIENCE OF ANYTHING?
Movies have a job - to tell a story or stories from a particular viewpoint, and hopefully tell that story well. We, the audience, should know that any movie we see is not an encylopedia entry on the subject matter, and I believe that most people know this. It should not be any movie's responsibility to carry the weight of explaining clearly and representing every factor of an experience. It's just not possible. The Help is aptly titled. It helps. Let it help and don't blame it for not being "The Cure." Here are the things the movie attempted to do, and I believe succeeded.
The Help is told from a female point-of-view
How often are we treated to a 2.5 hour movie where MEN aren't the focus? It's true that there are only a couple of black men in this film and that they play a miniature purpose. However, the WHITE men don't play a large one either, and the only reason they're in this movie is because we are seeing life from the maid's perspective. The main character, Aibileen, doesn't have a husband, Minnie's husband beats her, and we don't need character development for a wife beater - sorry. The main white female character, Skeeter, has a boyfriend only to highlight her own past with insecurity and loss. This film is NOT ABOUT MEN.
Aibileen, NOT Skeeter is the hero
I read a lot of criticism saying here's another Hollywood movie where the white character is the hero that saves the day and helps those poor blacks that couldn't do it for themselves.
HUH? Did they watch the movie? Skeeter (the woman who writes the book about the maids) can do NOTHING without the maids. How is she the savior? And she's not doing it to "save" them. She's doing it because she feels it's a story worth telling and cares. And I'm sorry, yes, some white people did care about the lack of respect and concern going on in society. I'm sorry, no, blacks did NOT do it all by themselves. I'm sorry, yes, it took a nation of people of several races and colors to come together to fight injustice. What's wrong with telling a story where whites and blacks work together to create a book that will bring awareness to people who either don't know, don't show, and don't care about what's going on in Jackson, Mississippi? (Thanks for that quote Ice Cube! RICKYYYYYY!!!!!!)
Skeeter had nothing to lose by writing the book except her "friends" getting angry with her. Aibileen had everything to lose - made more difficult since she felt she had already lost everything after her son died. The movie highlighted this fact well. I don't see how anyone could miss that at the end of the movie, we celebrate Aibileen. Skeeter simply smiles with the satisfaction knowing that she played a part. By the way, the movie is called "The Help" not "Skeeter." By the way, the headlining actress is Viola Davis (Aibileen), not Emma Stone (Skeeter).
There is fear and weakness on both sides
The movie highlights those who were courageous, both white and black, as well as those who were not. We see that there is no "good" race to be. Blacks are not better because they suffered, and whites are not better because they tried to help. We also see black characters that fail (like Minnie's husband committing domestic violence and Yule - the maid who stole the ring) and white characters that fail (like Skeeter's mother firing Constantine or Aibileen's boss being a poor mother and having no backbone at all). People are not perfect, and that is well displayed in this movie. Forget about pointing out the obvious racist character Hilly, who is supposed to represent all of the reprehensible traits of people during that time. What the movie highlights is that her character is driven by fear. What all of the "fail" characters have in common is that when they succomb to fear or lack of integrity, they injure themselves and the relationships they had with - The Help.
I've seen a lot of movies dealing with the subject of race where all whites are painted as the antagonist, and blacks are the martyred heroes. I've seen a lot of movies where the only black characters are antagonists or so depraved that it's embarrassing. So should I apologize when I enjoy seeing a movie out of Hollywood that paints a picture where there are no perfect people, and the theme is not about black vs. white, but about courage, justice, and integrity?
That story is told through the lens of a maid.
That story is told through the lens of a woman.
That story is told through the lens of a black woman in the 1960's.
And yet, everyone who watches this film walks away with the larger message: People need people. Skeeter needed Aibileen and the other maids to be courageous and tell their story under the threat of legal and possibly physical repercussions. Aibileen needed Skeeter to care and Ms. Stein to publish the book. They did it together. In THIS story, one couldn't have done it without the other. I think that's beautiful. Come on everyone, let's recognize that Hollywood delivered a balanced character story - not a perfect movie. I pray that Viola Davis receives a nomination for an Academy Award. If you saw her play the role of Antwoine Fisher's mother several years ago, you know she deserves it.
As for the topic of racism. Simply read the news, and you will know that today in 2011, Jackson, Mississippi is still a hotbed of racially motivated crimes. It's not our job to solve racism in a day. It's our job to continually recognize it and move forward despite it. One of the ways we can do that is through theater, music, and yes, film.
The job of a movie is to dramatize something so that we can take something from it and enrich our own lives. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the "I Have a Dream" speech:
One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
I believe that The Help helps to dramatize a shameful condition. The shameful condition is not racism.