Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This is why I worry about "The Help"

Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who's always taken orders quietly, but lately she's unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She's full of ambition, but without a husband, she's considered a failure. Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town... Read more...

A lot of folks have been giving the whole idea of a book, written by a Southern white woman,  about black domestics in 1960s Mississippi, the side eye. I understand. When my book club decided to read Kathryn Stockett's The Help last year, I was ambivalent. The book was a popular best-seller with rave reviews. Yet, I have learned to brace myself against the biased and stereotypical way black women are rendered in media. I have become weary of Mammy-fied caricatures that bear little resemblance to the many Southern black women in my family. I am sick of narratives that read like a sort of pre-Civil Rights porn for people who get off on "the good ole days." And I have become tired of narratives where black folks are "saved" by the awesomeness of good white folks. So, yeah, I came to The Help begrudgingly. But I liked it.



The Help was a good book. I had a hard time putting it down. The black characters did not feel "off" as they often do when written by a non-black person. And Stockett wove her story with far more nuance than I expected. The author illuminated the pains, dangers and hypocrisies of 60s-era racism and segregation. She even departed from discussion of race to explore class, an issue often overlooked in tales like this. Not every white person was wealthy or considered "the right sort." Not every white woman felt comfortable in the role of mistress of the house.

Oh, there are racial fails in The Help. Nearly all of the black characters speak in dialect, while none of the white characters do. And I don't want to spoil one of the book's big reveals, but surely Stockett realizes that there have been mixed-race people in black families since we arrived in the country, perhaps most especially in the South due to slavery, Reconstruction and the exploitation of black women. It is not shocking for a black family to have a member or members who could easily "pass" as white. There are other problems, but I will say this, The Help had no more racial fails that most other fiction I've encountered. Or at least, in my eyes, the book rose above it.

My concern is not with The Help. My concern is how American society processes race and how people will receive the movie, based on the book, which debuts this weekend. Here's an excerpt from Rolling Stone's three-and-a-half-star review of the film:
The film's catalyst is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) a recent graduate of Ole Miss looking to spark a career in journalism by getting Aibileen and Minny to confide their feelings about working for white families in a changing South. Skeeter is a tricky part--white girl liberates enslaved black womanhood--but Stone, an exceptional talent, is so subtly effective at showing Skeeter's naivete. It's Skeeter's job to first liberate herself from the bigoted codes passed on through generations, including her mother (Allison Janney) and Skeeter's own card-dealing, role-playing girlfriends. [Emphasis mine.]
See this. This is the problem. Skeeter begins capturing the stories of her town's domestics for her own benefit. She wants a writing job in New York City. She has outgrown Jackson, MS, and its cages for both women and people of color. It is true that she begins to recognize and rebel against the rigid societal rules of the time, including the ones related to race. Skeeter is also, naive, young and privileged. In fact, some of her behavior puts the black women she is working with and herself in danger. Skeeter is not Moses. She liberates no one, but herself.

The black women who tell their stories to Skeeter do so for their own reasons. Because they are tired of being silent. Because they have put up with years more oppression, as black people and as women than Skeeter has. And their race, gender and class give them very few of her freedoms. These black women liberate themselves. The book and film take place in the 1960s--a time when black people were fighting hard for equality. In 1955, years before The Help takes place, Rosa Parks, who once worked as a domestic, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and sparked a boycott that changed history. Many domestic workers would take part in that boycott, walking miles to their jobs in white people's homes in a bid for their civil rights. How offensive to imply that what a group of grown black women needs is for a young white woman to come alert them they are "enslaved" and them lead them to freedom.

To me, The Help was less about race than it was about gender--about women of different races, ages and classes chafing against the ways society marginalizes them and restricts them and tries to own them. But that narrative, perhaps, does not lend itself to big box office receipts and product tie ins. (Yeah. Product tie ins.) So instead, we'll get Nice White Lady Saves Po' Black Folks - Jim Crow Edition. (If you haven't seen Mad TV's parody of this kind of film. You have to click through that link.)

Here's what Booklist has to say about The Help:
Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s is a city of tradition. Silver is used at bridge-club luncheons, pieces polished to perfection by black maids who “yes, ma’am,” and “no, ma’am,” to the young white ladies who order the days. This is the world Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan enters when she graduates from Ole Miss and returns to the family plantation, but it is a world that, to her, seems ripe for change. As she observes her friend Elizabeth rudely interact with Aibileen, the gentle black woman who is practically raising Elizabeth’s two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, Skeeter latches ontothe idea of writing the story of such fraught domestic relations from the help’s point of view. With the reluctant assistance of Aibileen’s feisty friend, Minny, Skeeter manages to interview a dozen of the city’s maids, and the book, when it is finally published, rocks Jackson’s world in unimaginable ways. With pitch-perfect tone and an unerring facility for character and setting, Stockett’s richly accomplished debut novel inventively explores the unspoken ways in which the nascent civil rights and feminist movements threatened the southern status quo. Look for the forthcoming movie to generate keen interest in Stockett’s luminous portrait of friendship, loyalty, courage, and redemption. --Carol Haggas
This is my worry: That even if The Help film gets it right, viewers will see just another movie about a spunky, young, white girl, setting the world on fire, while the lives, stories and agency of black women remain invisible.

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