"The Help" & The Race ChordAugust 11, 2011 26 Comments
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…