Thursday, August 11, 2011

Help On the Way

THE HELP Juggernaut is about to cruise through International Cultural Waters!

The cover of Entertainment Weekly (August 12, 2012) features Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer from the upcoming film, The Help—based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The feature article promotes the film in which two black women maids are encouraged (enabled) by a white woman writer to speak out for Civil Rights.The article does mention the fact that the success of the novel might have to do with an aggressive marketing campaign to readers of all colors that the vast majority of black woman authors have never gotten. However this inequity is not Kathryn Stockett’s fault!

Besides, The Help’s a good story!

Critics on the wire give The Help thumbs up and urge us to go see a film that takes on serious, touchy themes without getting “preachy.”

That’s code for: white people won’t have to feel guilty.

There’s still some small worry that black people might cringe.

The rest of the world can hopefully just sit back and enjoy a good screen story.

The premise of The Help grates on me (and on others—see Martha Southgate’s response) but I plan to attend the film. The performers are supposed to be phenomenal and how many blockbuster Hollywood features offer so many actresses a chance to fill the screen? Besides those mentioned above, there’s Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburger, and Aunjanue Ellis. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer proclaim that their characters are the most dimensional they have gotten to portray. Dark (and even plump!) black actresses don’t get much play in Hollywood so Davis and Spencer were, after initial skepticism, excited to sink their teeth into meaty roles. They get why folks might be suspicious, but plead for a chance to be seen.

I find their pleas incredibly painful.

The filmmakers have screened the film for black audiences and received much applause and also blessings from revered elders—like Andrew Young. The filmmakers don’t want a firestorm but a sweet box office swell.

If we—the audiences who want to see black actresses on screen but are troubled by the premise of The Help and the politics of Hollywood Blockbuster films and Mainstream Bestselling novels which still, in 2011 not 1963 or some other painful past, exclude black screenwriters, directors, actresses, and novelists from the kind of support and marketing that made The Help a juggernaut—if we don’t go to The Help—why the Hollywood machine won’t risk featuring black ladies again, probably for a long time. The systemic repercussions will be our fault, not the writer’s fault. I keep hearing this. If the film fails, if execs don’t greenlight films featuring black ladies after a disappointing showing for The Help, it’ll be because we—the skeptics—didn’t give this movie a chance.

The logic of this is brutal. We are blamed for systemic problems, but those capitalizing on them are just doing…well, good art. Who can blame them for that?

The premise of the film is the familiar “whites enable colored people to fight for freedom” myth. This storyline gets published or produce more than the colored people enabling each other story. Avatar and Mississippi Burning leap to mind. Good is subjective, of course. Still, it’s not so much a question of whether Avatar or The Help are good stories with complex characters well told, but what kind of good story is aggressively marketed? A story that doesn’t center on the intervention of a benevolent/repentant member of the privileged class helping the downtrodden to rise up is a less marketable “good” story. If the help help themselves out of the stinking mess, odds are against the story. The story might even be labeled preachy, angry. Mainstream audiences might feel guilt just watching the trailer!

That we get the same "good" story over and over again is no one’s fault! Certainly not the author of The Help who wrote her particular heart-rending version of it, nor the actresses who play their complex incarnations of the familiar. Who can blame the author for taking advantage of a system stacked in her favor and stacked against other writers? Who can blame the actresses for snapping up the opportunity? So few of us get any kind of opportunity!How many Blockbusters have more than one woman featured?

What do we want? What do we expect? A revolution? This is commercial literature and film for God’s sake. Would we rather see nothing at all?


Anonymous said...

On the Amazon reviews of the book, someone mentioned "That Evening Sun" by William Faulkner, which struck me as a little white girl as the most brutal inditement of white Southern indifference that I had read (first encountered in my teens). It's on line. It's brutal.

Living in Nicaragua, I see a parade of rescuers. I've had interactions with rescuers on line who got very angry if I suggested that their rescuing was not really always wanted or necessary. A poor black guy told the Charlotte, NC, city counsel that the poor were jobs for the middle class, black as well as white. The guy committed to "doing good" thought this guy was a bigot. Sometimes the pay, however, isn't in coin but in self-regard, but the helped are the subordinates to the helper's superiority.

Glad that the actress got work, but one LA agent said what his black clients wanted was to be cast as the neighbors, not always the black neighbors. I look at Torchwood and White Collar and the UK casting seems to be broader in its social base, in the variety of roles that black actors can take than most of the US, though White Collar isn't the worst of American shows.

Josh said...

Wait, haven't there been unsuccessful "films featuring black ladies" before? And this one still got made. The "brutal logic" that makes seeing it such a high-stakes matter, and the fact that many people are buying into it, is indeed depressing.

To say nothing of Cicely Tyson — Harriet Tubman to my generation — playing the heroine's "mammy." Argh.

Ocala Wings said...

Growing up working class poor, the whole "Lady Bountiful" thing makes me angry in places I didn't know I could be angry.

By its very definition, 'helping' denotes a power imbalance. Rescuers and ladies bountiful don't see the imbalance; they think they're doing 'good works,' or helping the 'less fortunate.' They don't see the cost the 'less fortunate' pay for such help. And that's why they get angry when the 'less fortunate' are less than grateful.

The dominate culture loves stories that perpetuate and even praise this kind of imbalance as normal and good, because on one hand it validates history as they want to remember it and it allows them to feel that they really are good people after all and have nothing to feel guilty about.

I don't believe in guilt. I don't think any good comes from it. The other side of guilt is despair and from despair comes hopelessness. I believe change comes from taking positive action, in taking responsibility for our actions and inactions.

I believe in sharing the wealth; wealth as in time, money, food, love, pretty much everything except my wife and my toothbrush. My grandmother taught me to 'divide' whatever I have, because that's just the right thing to do. But when I share I want to do it as a friend, as an ally. And when someone helps me, I want it to be given from a friend, from an ally. Power imbalances don't make for healthy relationships. The helper and the helpee should be peers.

I, too, would like to see a shift in the stories we tell ourselves--and our children. I would like black folks and gay folks to be cast as plain old neighbors. I'd like women to be portrayed as individuals, not as mothers or wives or girlfriends or maids or somebody in relationship to the main character. Hell, I'd like be able to watch sports and not have them labeled soccer & women's soccer, basketball & womens's basketball.

Will I watch this movie? Part of me wants to. But then, do I really want my wife and friends to have to listen to me rant for days after? I don't know.

Eileen Gunn said...

Your points are well-taken, Andrea. I was going to skip "The Help," but perhaps I should see it and write about it.

Movies like this (and novels like the one from which it is derived) both make me cringe *and* make me feel guilty. Perhaps "ashamed" is a better description than "guilty," but the line between guilt and shame is a fine one.

I am glad to see Martha Southgate's response is in EW Online, as that means it is at least available to the EW online audience, but I am very sorry that EW didn't think to solicit such a piece for the issue in which the cover story appeared.

Kudos to Ms. Southgate for the memorable sentence:
"Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help."

Therem said...

@Eileen: EW did publish Martha Southgate's dissenting opinion in the print version of the magazine. Not sure if it was the same issue that the cover story was in, but it was recent.