"In My Opinion..."
The Help...a "Both/And" of a film?
The current movie, The Help, raises strong feelings for many of us...it is both powerful and problematic. For those of us who know what it's like to have moms and/or other relatives for whom this movie is an on-going story, or one just recently past, it raises
|Dr. Valerie Batts|
anger, rage, sadness, pride and a host of other emotions. Others of us live with feelings of nostalgia, love, confusion and/or guilt about the realities of the lives of these women. This story of the relationship and associated tension between women as helpers and those who employ them is part of our shared, yet typically unspoken and clearly unresolved, past as US citizens. The movie of Karen Stockett's novel has given us another opportunity to expose these troubled waters. Yet without a context, it will likely not bridge them.
In an interview with Viola Davis, the award-winning actress who plays Abilene, she talks about her decision to take the part, even as she had reservations. She took the role because she thought this history was important to be recorded. Her decision reflects a choice to help change the course of history through making sure the African-American story is told within it. A noble move, one for which I have great respect.
As I watched the film, I was aware how much I learned about the structural patterns of racism and classism from my relatives and friends who were maids. However, I also learned from my aunts and uncles who moved north in the 1940's so as not to repeat these patterns. They, too, were affected by structural racism and classism as they worked in New York's garment district; one of them inhaling toxic fumes as a presser and dying of cancer just at the retirement age of 65.
I also appreciated being reminded of white allies from the 1960's. Growing up in Eastern North Carolina, at that time I was not aware of any. Then in 1967 or so, a white librarian began to give books from the "white section" of the library to my friend Patricia and I. She saw our love of reading and wanted to nurture that in us. It was a seemingly small gift of "ally-ship" that spoke volumes.
I also applauded the film for daring to show the meanness of white society at that time, and the way class and gender played out as well. These issues
are still relevant today. They are just cloaked in different forms and sometimes more subtle. Just look at how meanness is now playing out in our current political discourse.
The Help is not, however, the first story to tackle the experiences of a Black domestic. Nor is it the first to explore the lives of Black women. Barbara Neely wrote an award-winning murder mystery series set in the 1980s about Blanche White, a charming, extraordinarily feminist maid. The fact that it is not a best seller or a movie can produce a spectrum of emotions varying from caution to rage, depending on one's perspective. The anger among many blacks and other progressives regarding The Help, as another in the line of "whites exploiting black folk's stories" and/or "whites creating feel good movies for themselves", is understandable when we think about it as another example of the embedded structural, institutional and cultural realities of racial inequity.
Racism and classism were destructive forces in the 1950s and their impacts continue today. The Help brings us back to these roots and compels us to look at the economic and social impacts of this unfinished trauma on human lives. What is truth and reconciliation at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels? All need to be addressed and it is a long-term journey.
We, as a country, still live largely in two parallel worlds. So many white folks just do not know about the depth of black bi-cultural understanding-both of white AND black culture and of our shared human condition. This knowledge is most publicly evident in the work of the tireless black artists, filmmakers and writers who have commented on the experience of being "raced black" since our coming to these shores.You can also see the evidence of these parallel worlds in Europe, historically as well as currently. (See our Check These Out! links on our sidebar.)
As we can see in The Help, our story is integral to that of the dominant story, yet typically invisible and painful to uncover. When filmmakers of color and others who have been historically excluded are freely telling our own story and being heard, the dynamics of racism will begin to shift. Then we will begin having healing and restorative conversations that start with recognition of how each of us has been affected by this legacy. It will also get us to explore the things we might do to
help change it.
The pain of the content of The Help is a good place to start the discussion. As a person interested in inviting people to recognize, understand, appreciate and utilize differences, I am frankly encouraged by seeing how this movie is sparking conversation among many of you in your own circles of influence.