15 August 2011

On Not Seeing 'The Help'

I did not see The Help this weekend; I also did not read the book. Since I both read and saw The Secret Life of Bees a couple of years ago and am conversationally familiar with The Blind Side, I figured I had earned enough credit to sit this one out. Call it a mental health decision.

The title alone was enough for me to know to stay away. The synopsis confirmed that I had made the right decision: A young southern white woman with dreams of becoming a writer comes home from college and upon hearing the news that her mammy has abruptly left Mississippi for Chicago, realizes that black maids are treated differently from white people and thusly decides to write about them from their perspective. This, folks, is a classic case of cinematic enwhitlement...and exactly how Hollywood--and the rest of America--addresses race: A well-meaning (often southern) and heretofore racially oblivious (shall we say color-blind?) white person randomly discovers that the Negro they love most (and by extension other black people) is treated "differently," becomes tragically affected by the epiphany, heroically takes up the cause (on a micro or macro level), and gets some Colored Only signs removed. Oh and a whole bunch of funny shit happens in the middle. Like Klansmen becoming comic relief. Yep. That's exactly how Jim Crow was.

Despite my decision not to see The Help's version of what I've just described, I was within earshot of those circles who had decided to address the film. And you know what? The Help is exactly what I had expected: historically inaccurate, stereotypical, reductive. Although viewing such films and responding in kind is the kind of thing I might have done previously, it's become pretty apparent that my words (to the choir) are thoroughly unnecessary. There are plenty of better equipped people eloquently discussing the issues in films like The Help.  See, for example, the Association of Black Women Historian's letter to fans of the film.

Besides, I was neither invited to Michelle Obama's White House screening of the The Help nor to any other free viewing party. In order to see The Help, then, I would have had to pay. And since there's no space on a dollar bill to write, "I only paid to see this movie so that I could talk shit about it in an informed manner," I figured it best to avoid the cineplex altogether. Paying to see the film would have simply translated into support for more of these kinds of films to be made, and any critical words I might have written on a blog would not have countered that action at all.

But (as Tyler Perry teaches us) my dollars can say something to Hollywood. So how about you and I take the 45 gazillion dollars we would have paid for snacks and tickets to The Help and put it behind, I don't know, a kickstarter project that counters these trite race narratives Hollywood keeps feeding the masses? Dolen Perkins-Valdez' novel, Wench has been optioned for film. How about a bunch of folks buy her book so the film actually gets made? What if enough of us bought copies of The Chaneysville Incident to put it on a bestseller's list? And although I absolutely cringe at the idea, don't you want--and think people need--to see Octavia's work on the big screen? (Nevermind.)

Or, you know, we could just all go see Rise of the Planet of the Apes again. #HailCaesar

P.S. I cannot believe Whoopi Goldberg and/or Morgan Freeman were not in this film. Just can't believe it.


evelyn.n.alfred said...

You communicated that better than I could have. Cosign.

Anonymous said...

or oprah or danny glover either?! sacrilege!!

Cicy said...

True grit is making a decision and standing by it,doing what must be done.

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Anonymous said...

I was very wary about seeing this movie as well. But now that it is available on DVD, and I wouldn't be "supporting" the film monetarily, I decided to watch it. I must say, I found your assumptions about it to be somewhat off base. I wonder now, if after seeing it, you would still feel as strongly about how you have characterized it.

There are elements of it that are not historically accurate, and they do downplay the threat of physical and sexual abuse in white homes, but I didn't feel that it made light of the Jim Crow era or used Klansmen as comic relief.

The film definitely had its flaws, wasn't devoid of stereo-typing, and its clear it is aimed at white audiences, but I don't think its in the same category as the other two films you mention.

Central to the film is the complexities and conflict around black women raising white babies - from both sides - a theme I don't think has been explored in many movies on race.

Overall, it left me wondering, if films like this are classic "cinematic enwhitlement" - what kind of movie exploring the 60's Jim Crow era would you want to see? Should movies depicting this era only be made by African Americans, to offset the dominant, white, Hollywood narrative recalling that time? Should Hollywood leave race alone because they get it wrong in almost all cases? Just wondering I guess, if in addition to critiquing films like this, can we imagine what would be its antithesis?

Anonymous said...

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