Aug/11/11//IISC//Featured, Power, Equity, Inclusion

“The Help” & The Race Chord

So I just came in from seeing the Hollywood movie that’s got my FaceBook page and Twitter account all abuzz: “The Help,” written and directed by Tate Taylor based on a novel by his childhood friend, Kathryn Stockett. It’s the fictional story of a group of black maids in 1960s Mississippi who agree to share their work lives with a young, aspiring, white female journalist.  It’s clear that yet again this kind of story has struck a dissonant, familiar, chord with the American public — I’ll call it “The Race Chord.”  While black thought leaders I respect are publicly denouncing the flick,  others I also respect are making a point to enthusiastically support it via press release

I get the conundrum. Once again, the power and privilege of storytelling via the mighty Silver Screen is dominated by the white savior trope that permeates our cultural and psychic consciousness.  To those who simply cannot stomach voluntarily subjecting oneself to these searing images yet again, I totally understand.  After all, that’s why I never went to see, nor have to this day seen, the much acclaimed, “The Blind Side.” Regardless of how good the script might be– when it is essentially the same story that arcs when the heroic whites are moved through some exceptional “friendship” to rescue the otherwise pitiful blacks — as a political matter, I must protest.  Boycott. Resist. Protect my psyche.  Those of us studying and understanding the pervasive nature of structural racism understand that it must also be resisted on the level of our  beliefs, attitudes, imagery and internal conditioning.  Or, at least be very suspicious that the Home Shopping Network is selling jewelry, home decor, and clothes “created in the spirit of ‘The Help.’” A structural analysis helps us understand that larger interests indeed benefit from the perpetuation of such a ‘spirit.’

But for some reason, I wasn’t internally halted from going to see The Help.

The performances were exquisite. Brilliant performances especially by Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone — and a treat to see veterans Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek show ‘em how the original divas do it.   From a movie making craft standpoint, it is the epitome of why there should even be such a thing as Hollywood: powerful acting, script, direction, scenery, score, period research, etc. I did enjoy the film…

…except for that strange and discomforting feeling I had knowing that the racial oppression dynamics and the indignities of Viola Davis’ character was not so long ago, nor that far away. My grandmother was a maid for a white family.

….except to know that it was just last year that my home state of New York passed the nation’s first ever — first ever — Domestic Worker Protection Law.

…except that I saw it in affluent West Hartford, CT on a Wednesday evening in a theater that was nearly packed…with clusters of white women the overwhelming majority in the house.  Obviously, there is still an attraction to this story. To be fair, it is the kind of meaning-making, conversation starting, drama many of us want to see more of coming out of Hollywood…

…except that I am quite annoyed and incensed by the political and economic reality of Hollywood as gatekeeper of this powerful medium. This blog continues the ongoing conversation here about power — and here the institutional power of Hollywood to shape images, truths and our conceptions of history, reality, identity and possibility.  There are hardly any blacks with greenlighting authority in Hollywood as we speak. If we are honest and alert — we know that we — black and white women — still experience these same  lingering racialized dynamics in our places of work and elsewhere.  The Help reminds me that in 2011, we are not so distant legatees from the society depicted in The Help.

What do you think? What about film and its power to reinforce or rattle the status quo? White and black women, especially from The South — I’d love to hear your reflections especially. As I said, it’s definitely struck a chord…

Comments [26]////Permalink// Like [8]
  • NIcole

    Hey so i finally saw the movie last night with a friend. I have read a lot of reviews about this movie. Also i really didn’t want to critique it until i finally had a chance to see it.
    I completely agree with you. I thought some of the performances were great. I thought it was a well told fictional story but thats what it was, fictional. I have given up on mainstream media (corporate white men) to think about a world beyond themselves.
    I think there was a lot of humor in this movie. Good and Bad. I think a good way to mask a lot of the pain and suffering that people go through is to add humor to the situation. They did that well.
    I personally think the most unsettling thing for me was the end of the movie. The Help (the book) seemed to be this Bible figure. It freed all the poor Black people and now there is no racism, and no hatred. I wonder what would have really happened if a white woman actually wrote a book like this in that time period. I wonder how many Black women would have lived to tell their stories. I wonder if these women would have been harassed, tortured, or beaten. I wonder how the real story would have played out. You know i would love to see THE HELP 2 (you wont, because apparently that story isn’t worth telling…thats when you will begin to experience some real dissonance)
    I didnt like it nor did i hate it. I just would not spend 11 bucks on this movie ( especially if your a person of color)