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Thursday
Aug112011

Melissa Harris Perry Hates Her Some "Help"

Prof. Melissa Harris PerryRecently academic and author Melissa Harris Perry took one for the team and watched Hollywood's latest offering in mainstream cinema about nice white people saving unfortunate black people (it's their favorite kind), aka, the new Viola Davis film "The Help."

Prof. Harris Perry was able to stave off a head-explosion of irony and focus on everything she absolutely hated about the film -- from the "feel-good" premise of black maids being given their voice by some perky young white woman to how the film took an ounce of history and turned it into a "cat fight" about the "Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi."

From Mediaite:

“This is not a movie about the lives of black women,” she clarified, as their lives were not, she argued, “Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi… it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities.” She then explained that it was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they “found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. “It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced.”

“It’s ahistorical and deeply troubling,” she argued, to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film, and Harris Perry concluded on a good note: actress Viola Davis’s buzz was well-earned. “What kills me,” she concluded, “is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”

I haven't read "The Help" and I'm sure it's a super, fun book. Most of my annoyance at all this is if a black woman had written a book about working as a maid during the Civil Rights Movement it would have been relegated to the "African American Lit" section, wouldn't get a movie and wouldn't be marketed to a non-black audience. Instead, because a white woman wrote it, it's some modern marvel, like a dog that can bark "I love you" or a super smart Chimpanzee you decide to raise as a pet until it leads a chimp rebellion. Only you normally would have left out the "chimp rebellion" part because there was no way to paint yourself as the hero anymore.

Hollywood is responsible for many lovely works of "Aw, look at those poor Negroes, I just want to help them!" White Liberal Guilt Theater. All-stars and award-winners they often are, most notably including "The Blind Side," "Mississippi Burning," "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Green Mile" and, now, the film version of the popular Kathryn Stockett novel "The Help."

The film is actually getting rave reviews (ahem, just as "The Blind Side," "Mississippi Burning," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Green Mile" all did before). A friend of mine tried to compare it to the interest and hype surrounding Steven Spielberg's adaptation of "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, but I was all, "Noooo." Since:

#1) That book was written by Alice Walker, a black woman, about the interior lives of black women.

#2) No white people come to save Celie and show her that deep down she is beautiful just like in that Christina Aguilera song. Shug Avery did that shit, then Celie saved her damn self.

The only modern heir-apparents to "The Color Purple" are "Precious" and Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," since all three can easily be manipulated into being some kind of black poverty porn for lookie-loos or empowering, true-to-life visions of black literary art. Either way, the black people have agency in those stories, even as they explore the more bleak side of things.

Before the film came out I had a lengthy chat online with Jamilah Lemieux, aka "Sista Toldja," and, later, my friend Vernon Mitchell Jr., (aka "The Negro Intellectual") about "The Help." In Lemieux's case, she was working on her response to the making of this film. I went on a rant about how, if you want to make "The Help" a movie, that's fine, but what does Hollywood have against stories about black people where black people still have agency and they're equals with white people, or, as in many cases during the lengthy fight for equality, white people were actually following a black person.

I wondered where my film on John Brown was or a film on Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass or the founding of the NAACP or Madame CJ Walker or Dr. Charles Drew or Langston Hughes or George Washington Carver or the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro sit-ins. Even though George Lucas has been severely deficient in the storytelling part of his career as a director, I couldn't help but be excited when I saw the trailer for the World War II era film, Red Tails, based on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Maybe it will do better than Spike Lee's "Miracle At St. Anna," which I had initially hoped was a film adaptation of "Lasting Valor," the incredible story of black WWII infantryman Vernon J. Baker. It wasn't. It's based on a work of fiction by the same name by James McBride. (Baker's story is pretty incredible and film-worthy in its own right. He lead his unit after his white officer abandoned his segregated unit -- half of them already dead -- in the middle of a fire-fight. Stuck three miles inside enemy lines on a hillside in facist Italy, Baker and his fellow infantrymen fought on. He wasn't acknowledged for his efforts until 1997 when then President Bill Clinton award him with the Medal of Freedom, and even then, Baker was kind of bummed, thinking about all the men who needlessly died and went unrecognized for decades.)

But the reason why stories like these are far and in-between is there is no invention like the main character of "The Help," a plucky, personable white person who saves the day. These stories are complex and multi-layered where you have to confront the ugliness of the human condition. 

These aren't stories like "Dances With Wolves" or "Avatar" where the white guy gets to "go natural," start out just some white dude and then become leader of a "noble, oppressed people." John Brown is someone who believed in ending slavery so much he killed people over it and then was killed himself. A guy, so serious that even Frederick Douglass had to tell his good friend he couldn't go off that cliff with him and incite a rebellion in raiding Harper's Ferry.

I know why these films are popular because you get the hint of danger (OMG! The segregated 1960s South! Separate drinking fountains! Horrifying!) but you never have to confront your own prejudices or get dirty. You never have to question yourself or ask the hard questions of others. You also get a sanitized, accessible version of black pain. You don't have to face all that murder and rage and rape and poverty and oppression that totally bums people out. They're called "Feel Good" films for a reason.

I'll probably get around to watching "The Help." Eventually. Like many African Americans with Southern roots quite a few of the older women in my family were maids. And I grew up hearing many uncomfortable stories from my mother about the often complicated and uneasy relationships between her family and the wealthier white families in town. How even if they were "kind" to them, there was still at times a taint of "ownership" which made her uncomfortable. Efforts at independence were still discouraged. Views were still very paternalistic. I'd like to see a film that explores that, how complicated race relations in the South can get, where you're raising someone else's kids and spend more time in their house than you spend in your own. Where you can love the black woman who raised you, but you'll fight to keep other blacks separate from you. To see the power dynamics of that relationship play out in a film or literary work that explores both the common and uncommon ways these situations unfolded would do more service than turning pain into a pop confection of a past that never was.

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    Stories like the critically acclaimed and award-winning The Blind Side juxtaposed to the gritty and real yet still award-winning Precious. Or even now the buzz about the Black blogosphere surrounding the movie The Help and the first question the Black actresses get asked is some form of ”Do you feel like ...

Reader Comments (37)

Great post, Snob. Another movie to add to the roster of "black folks with agency:" Antwone Fisher. That one is unique in several ways: instead of a black woman being saved by church and the love of a good man a la Tyler Perry, a black man is saved by a black psychologist (exploring his inner life!) and by the love of a good black woman.

Also, do you remember the TV show, "I'll Fly Away" from the early '90s? The main character was a black maid in the South in the '50s, but she was outspoken and the complicated dynamics you describe were well portrayed.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonala

@ Monala:

Thanks! Glad you liked the post.

And I just vaguely remember "I'll Fly Away." I completely forgot about that one.

August 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

As a fellow Mississippian myself, I said she right about "The Help." I never read the book, but I have heard people say that it was good. Like she said. This movie is just about Emma Stone's character, Skeeter. If you want to watch a real story about people in Mississippi, you should watch the comedy Cookie's Fortune, because in that movie the plot really goes on in any part of Mississippi except Jackson and the Coast.

Plus I am not feeling Viola Davis for many reasons. Mainly because of the 106 and Park rant she said about there is nothing to do in Mississippi but Wal-Mart and all Mississippi people fry everything. I wonder who she was it because we don't fry everything in Mississippi.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDa Smoking Ace

Good post, Snob, but how could you not mention the ubiquitous sub-category of White Liberal Guilt Theatre: "School Teacher saves students from the hood"? Everyone from Tom Berenger to Rhea Perlman has gotten to play the "good" high school teacher.

I've always wondered about the extreme popularity of white folks who can "do" black - from Elvis, Michael Bolton, Eric Clapton (#1 selling blues album of all time - WTF?), Joss Stone, etc. Why not just...never mind.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLady J

WE don't need a movie about that period in our history anymore we've had enough....and we don't need anymore movies like Precious either. All these movies do is serve to make whites feel better about their role in America's ugly past (and present). While yes, white people in America oppressed Blacks don't feel too guilty b/c there was that one white girl who sought to make things better....or that one white family who adopts a big black man so that he could play college football for their University....I am just beyond over this...I love how whites find the good humor side in the oppression of blacks

I think these story lines are old....And I totally agree with you Danielle if this story had been written by a Black author it wouldn't have gotten this much attention. Although at some point Oprah or Tyler P would've gotten ahold to it and then it still would've been nonsense once Tyler cast every overweight Black actor, put them in horrendous wigs and somehow Madea would be apart of the plot chasing white ppl with a frying pan....talking bout "Hellur"

Why is it so hard to make a movie with Black people and it's just a good movie with a good plot? Wouldn't it be great to see Kerry Washington play the college educated black women who already has everything but needs a 2 hour plot and a series of funny scenes to come to that realization. Black women are so much more than maids and funny sidekicks.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

how dare a white woman write a book with black characters. if this book was written by a black author, no one in this forum could be critiquing it, either.

i'm amused at how some folks state things like "we don't....." or "we want....." or "we think......" but get mad when folks outside of said group think everyone in said group alike.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLOL

Great post, Snob.

I tried to read the help in 2009, but after 10 pages I felt that I was reading a "coon novel", so I had to put it aside. Of course I had to investigate because I wondered what kind of person would write such a blatantly insensitive tale. I'm not going to lie, that fact she used thick, dated dialect to characterize the black maids pissed me off especially when all of the white Southerners used perfectly correct English. I'm from Alabama so I knew that was an intentional decision to make the maids look ignorant.

I think the thing that was unsettling to me was that instead of treating this as a beach read, bourgeois white women treated this as the sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird. They are the group that made this book a bestseller. It annoyed the hell that they were encouraging black women who might have been daughters and granddaughters of the help to read the soul-stirring, life-affirming tale that made them laugh and made them cry. Seriously.

I shall skip this feature. There are other books to read and movies to watch.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I read the book, but I have not seen the movie. I get that many of us (black people) are tired of seeing movies with us being portrayed as servants. And many of us want to see more of the stories being told from our perspectives. However, the fact the matter is that THIS book was written by a white woman and it is being told from a white perspective. It is what it is...and to go into the movie expecting anything other than that is just plain silly. What exactly was Melissa expecting? And I see what Melissa is saying about all of the horrific things that went on during that time, however, not every single moment of every black maid's life involved rape, having homes burned, being treated horribly, etc. My grandmother was a maid to a white family during segregation. She had no stories of rape, her home was never burned, she was not treated horribly. Also, there were plenty of black folks during that time who would refuse to move to the back of a bus when asked and they got away with it...often. I listen to my older relative's stories. There were certain lines that would be crazy to cross, but there were plenty of black folks during segregation who did not take any sh*t off of white people and let it be known - my other grandmother was one of them! And during all of that, there were actually black folks who could make light of some of the most unpleasant race related situations.. Uh, Melissa, hello...ever heard of DICK GREGORY!?!?! Not all black people were walking around shell shocked during segregation. And plenty of black servants laughed in the kitchen with each other and AT their employers. (I've listened to plenty of real life stories about that, too.) So, I have no problem with some black maids laughing it up in the kitchen. Thank God, they did laugh when they could. Somehow, my parents and plenty of my older relatives made it through segregation without getting raped, beaten, or having their homes burned...Amazing.

And I would love to see more stories told about us by us being brought to the big screen. If we are that passionate about it, perhaps we should put more of our energy into trying to make that happen...and less energy into whining about what white people always end up doing. Are enough of us pooling resources (since it's harder for us to get films made within the white power structure) to get our stories told? Or do too many of us sit around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to see what the white people are going to do?

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPenny

I soldiered through the book just so my Mom would have somebody to rant with over it but I'll be damned if I'm gonna spend $ to go see this movie.

My impression of the book was that it was the author's attempt to assure herself and other "maid-raised" southerners that their maids really did love them (wanted to be with them more than their own children), and that while life had some harsh moments and some downs, it was mostly all good for these maids. I rate the book a double O__o (side-eye).

I knew there was no way Hollywood would retain any of the minute amount of depth contained in the novel and would instead go for the "draw" of playing with the white women and to white women. My family doesn't have a history that winds through the South but it's not hard for me to imagine that for the many who do - that they feel protective of how these stories are portrayed and are justifiably outraged of the disney-fication of yet another historical era.

I'm gonna warn all my friends who want to the see the movie to enter at your own risk. Don't call me asking for bail 'cause you went all up somebody's head halfway through the movie.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBajanlady

I thought Perry was on point.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrikyrah

A part of me wants to read the book and see the movie just because it doesn't feel right to criticize something I haven't read/watched.

But, oh my! The little snippets of the novel I've read and the trailer for the movie...well, let's just say they give me pause. Serious pause.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

One of my professors suggested I read this book after a lecture on race. She's a Italian New Yorker, born and bred. I was giving her a big side-eye.

The book is soooo offensive. Seriously? You're going to write all the black folks talking in non-standard English, but the whites are "normal". Just ugh.

Don't see this trifling movie. Try to read the book first. You'll see.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJem

@ penny

survey says:

"sit around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to see what the white people are going to do?"

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLOL

Thanks Snob -- for raising the issues that need to be discussed. I blogged on the issues that The Help raises about our need to empower ourselves (see http://godisabrowngirltoo.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/the-help-or-what-we-can-do-to-help-ourselves-by-cecilia-b-loving/) because I had no intention of seeing the movie or reading the book. I knew that the movie would minimize and trivialize us as ignorant, scared women -- who loved white babies more than our own -- who needed a Skeeter to come and save the day -- and put the notion in our heads that we may have a story to tell. And I was right: I saw the movie with my husband who made a desperate plea to support Viola and Octavia.

I love what Toni Morrison once said: write the book you want to read. Tell the story you want to hear. Make the movie you want to see. Otherwise, you won’t be starring in it — unless you’re The Help. Black women suffer from fibroids, high blood pressure, diabetes and so many other ugly ailments – because society has blatantly kicked us – the “help” to the curb and we are so busy celebrating our starring role that we fail to realize the joke is on us. The Women's Law Center reports that over the last 4 years more black women than anyone lost their jobs, which is consistent with a world that tries to hold us back. And we even kick ourselves to the curb — repeatedly foresaking our own power rather than embracing ourselves with so much love that our "uniform" falls off.

My mother worked as a maid and a nanny in the south and the north (I believe she says the north was harder) and she refuses to see the movie -- in part because she knows it will be a fantasy that undermines black folks -- as usual. But she started writing and publishing books for black children a few years ago -- featuring a character called Grandma Faith -- to help children realize they can do anything. Imagine that: a former South Carolina maid who educated herself at the University of Detroit now writing her own books -- bet you never heard of that? (www.myrtletreepress.webs.com)

I wrote a book called God is a Brown Girl Too, which lifts up God as a black woman for the first time: God speaks and teaches as a black woman. Bet you never heard of that? (www.godisabrowngirltoo.webs.com) Why? Because it's a book written by a black woman about black women empowered. You see, The Help is not just where we've been -- it's where society would love to keep us.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrown Girl

@Penny

"And I would love to see more stories told about us by us being brought to the big screen. If we are that passionate about it, perhaps we should put more of our energy into trying to make that happen...and less energy into whining about what white people always end up doing. Are enough of us pooling resources (since it's harder for us to get films made within the white power structure) to get our stories told? Or do too many of us sit around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to see what the white people are going to do?"

Well said. People need to stop whining and stop eating up whatever Tyler Perry is serving up. I'd also like to see stories told from a black perspective about the black experience in America. Preferably one that does not involve Medea.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKai

I haven't seen the movie (will go this weekend) but the book was excellent in my opinion. I really think we are reading more into this story than it should be. The book was more than just about what these black women did for a living. It should provide some insight on how strong we are as black women. The story is real.

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Ya know, I have no problem with this movie, We have to accept the fact that in those days, if you were black and a woman, it was not out of the ordinary to find yourself being a maid/nanny. A lot of times, it actually took a white person to say something or do something to inact change. It sucks but its the truth and there is no point in running from it.

I know we like to sweep that part of history under the rug but thats disrespectful. Those maids amd mammies we want to forget did what they did for a reason. Many of us educated negroes owe everything we have to them. They took the money that they made scrubbing floors and flipping flap-jacks for Becky Sue and Peter and paid for homes and college tuition for their children.

The fact is, if you make a film about the south that takes place pre 1980, there should be a black maid somewhere in it. Thats just how it was.

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternovanova

I haven't seen the movie (yet) or read the book. But to me it smacks of a 21st century "Driving Miss Daisy". I'll see it for myself and try to reserve full judgment until then. But every single White person I know who's seen it is as in love with it as they were "The Blind Side" (which I didn't care for), so that doesn't bode well.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTonyP

so how is this ahistorical?

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

I saw 'The Help" twice before it opened. Initially, I was bothered by the manner in which the film depicted the social mores of the early 1960's but after settling into the storytelling aspect of the film, I really enjoyed it. It was a film that touched on many truths and emotions. However, I do not agree with those who feel that the film has no value, sets Black people back, or who believe the film has no real value. You all must remember, this is a film, based upon a fictional novel and is therefore, not true. It is based on the writer's imagination. Take it for what it is worth nothing more. I was more embarrassed and unfulfilled by any number of Tyler Perry's offerings, especially the awful 'For Colored Girls....' adaptation and any number of the Ma' Dear buffoon films. I don't know why we always claim want to see ourselves as upwardly mobile, black professional, angst filled people on film. I like to go to movies to be entertained not experience what I see in my daily life. BTW I also have been offended by the Hollywood formula of the great white man/woman playing savior to the poor can't get a head of the game , downtrodden Black people. I just don't see this film in that light. Especially since the Black women in 'The Help' were portrayed with humanity and dignity AND got an opportunity to turn the tables on the nasty acting racist white women whom they worked for.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMsHowardUEsq

I didn't read The Help after it was recommended by many friends, white, who thought it was such a great book and told how they sobbed reading it. I went to see The Help, not so much for the story but because I wanted to see Viola Davis' performance. She is a truly talented actress who gives 100% in her roles no matter how small (Doubt) or bad(Eat, Pray, Love) the movie is. I enjoy movies, no matter what story or who's story is being told. I hope that the critisms from the black media does not play a part when the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy Awards look for performances of actresses to nominate. She should not become the next Whoppi Goldberg, an actress who give a stellar performance but is passed over b/c of controversy (Color Purple).

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCora

Nice to hear that "The Help" were portrayed with humanity, dignity, and had an opportunity to turn the tables on white racists ... at least in a fictional story.

I wonder how the real Abileen's lawsuit against the author for misappropriating her name and story without her permission or compensation is coming along.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKeepitreal

I agree with Penny's post. You are 100% correct. Everyone who disagrees should write their own book or their own story. I grew up in the south. My grandmother and great-grandmother were maids. It was a clean honest living but no not what they dreamed that their life would be.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLena

Once again, why doesn't Melissa Harris Perry have her own show? So many idiots with agendas on these talking head programs, and the one intelligent person get relegated to the background.

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdewish

Speaking as someone who hates what I call "(white) captain save a negro-movies" (e.g. The Blind Side), I saw The Help today and enjoyed it. When I saw previews of this movie, I never got the impression that the premise was about a white person saving black people. After seeing the movie today, I saw that my initial impression was correct. The white journalist in the movie asked the women (The Help) to share their stories, more as a way to secretly get back at their employers or at least to vent and to allow herself (the journalist) an opportunity to advance her career. There are no scenes where the white woman is trying to teach these women that they can "overcome" something. There were no scenes about "You can be more than a maid!." There was no "saving" going on in this movie. It's really not as bad as you all think. The theme I got from this movie was self-acceptance and empowerment for both black and white women. It was touching. #thatisall

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnon
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