Recently 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."
“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.