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Being a Maid
January 30, 2012 3:39 PM   Subscribe

James McBride talks about The Help, Hattie McDaniel, why black women are still winning awards for playing maids, how black culture is appropriated and represented, and whether marginalized groups in America all serve the purpose of "cultural maids".

"...You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid..."

"It was terrible lesson for a young man fresh out of college and I did my best to forget it. But I understand it then and I understand it now: This is what happens when you walk through a supermarket and hear muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instructions books made from the very harmonic innovations you created, and in my case, when you spend a lifetime watching films that spoof your community. Your entire culture is boiled down to greasy gut bucket jokester films, pornographic bling-rap, or poverty porn.

I used to think that if only there were a peaceful way, we could make Hollywood listen to the sound of America’s true drumbeat: the voices of working class poor, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and the so-called rednecks of this country; the people that walk the land, work in the K-Marts, run the fast food joints, drive the trucks, stand in line at 4 a.m. for the i-phones, go to church for redemption, and sell the knockoff s on ebay. But the new breed of Republicans have taken that high ground. They’ve gotten rich off it. That leaves me with nothing but the notion that Washington and Hollywood may be just alike. They’re engaged in a cultural war. They take your gun and use it on you, and it makes you sorry you drew your gun in the first place. It makes you wish you were a maid. "
posted by nakedmolerats (59 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
He gets a little disjointed at the end, but this is a piece that puts a lot of things together for me, especially regarding "The Help". I have not read the book nor seen the film, which in my northeast US middle class white christian circle is like not being a carbon based life form. It's "The Help!" of course you've read/seen it! Maybe James McBride has a book club.
posted by Biblio at 4:05 PM on January 30, 2012


I have seen The Help, or at least been in the room when it's been on. From what I could tell it's pretty much everything you would imagine of it.
posted by Artw at 4:09 PM on January 30, 2012


it's pretty much everything you would imagine of it

God, let's hope not.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:12 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just take a look at the shopped poster for it that renames it "White People Solve Racism", then remember whatever you can of Driving Miss Daisy and you pretty much have it covered.
posted by Artw at 4:13 PM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I agreed with pretty much everything that McBride said about American culture. The thing I'm confused about is his opinion of The Help. I haven't seen the movie, but from what little I know about it, it sounds like the sort of thing that he's asking for: a story about the underclass. I understand the irony he refers to when comparing to the Hattie McDaniels nomination, but that just seems to be on the face of it. I've heard very divided opinions about the movie itself; some say it is condescending, while others say it is uplifting. I'm not sure that I trust either crowd. Maybe I should just see this movie and make up my own mind.
posted by Edgewise at 4:16 PM on January 30, 2012


I'd like to see a movie where some well meaning white girl wants to uplift her servants, only to have her servants say fuck that, we got bigger plans than your little book, right after we starch your adorable vintage dress. That's when the revolution starts, missy.
posted by Biblio at 4:22 PM on January 30, 2012 [13 favorites]


It’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens.

That about sums it up. My favorite (i.e., most likely to cause an embolism) pop culture example of this is the whole "film ostensibly about black Africans with white Euro-African as lead character" genre.

Last fall, my college hosted a showing of this really nice little documentary about African-American migration to Muskegon, MI, as part of a series of campus events around the community reading of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.

Anyhow, the movie was good, and the audience included a lot of people whose forbears had migrated from the South to various parts of Michigan -- and I was hoping that the post-viewing discussion would be focused on them and what they had to say about the film, their own history, etc.

But it took this weird turn when someone asked the (white) director and producer what they thought the film contributed to race relations or something, and it was like the Invisible Backpack exploded and blotted out all other conversation. The director was all, "Well, I think many white people are really unaware of blah blah blah, and this film really adds to their understanding blah blah blah." I mean, he was a nice guy, and good on him for making the film, but it was sort of like if Ken Burns got all misty-eyed about how now he understands slavery or something.

I wanted to crawl under my chair.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:23 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic.

Maybe they were playing nice, and from the reviews i've read, it's not a good film, to simply not piss off someone they may want to work with. Personally, i've hated every film Spike Lee has made, and wouldn't be interested in it if i was a decision maker, and it has nothing to do with race, i just didn't think they were any good. Same goes for Transformers though, i would have nixed that too if i could have.

His argument seems to be "i don't see ME portrayed!!", well, join the club. I have yet to see a movie or film that accurately portrays me, and i'm white. Maybe because it's not that interesting to other people than me, or just because "hollywood" doesn't take what it sees as a risk. If i wanted to make a film about me, i would have an even harder time than Spike Lee i bet you.

hear muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instructions books made from the very harmonic innovations you created

So i guess that the instruments they used didn't come from Europe? It's not "your" history, you may be a part of it, but you don't own it, no one does. Culture and music and such are fluid, they borrow from all over, it's natural and you better accept it. Denying it is like saying only pureblood people are best. The best things come from a mix and growth of them all.
posted by usagizero at 4:25 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


movie or film

ugh.. movie or show, too tired. :P
posted by usagizero at 4:27 PM on January 30, 2012


"film ostensibly about black Africans with white Euro-African as lead character" genre

Like this piece of shit, among others
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:28 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think my #1 favorite is Cry Freedom, where Steve Biko is an incidental minor supporting character in a narrative about Kevin Kline.

Because, y'know, it'd be pretty hard to make an interesting movie about Steve Biko.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:34 PM on January 30, 2012 [12 favorites]


Coming to theaters summer 2013: The Herp
An uplifting movie about poor black men in Alabama helping a white doctor study the effects of a terrible disease.
posted by perhapses at 4:35 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


His argument seems to be "i don't see ME portrayed!!", well, join the club. I have yet to see a movie or film that accurately portrays me, and i'm white.

I think you may have a skimmed. There are a couple of times that he mentions that the white working class and so-called "rednecks" have also been left out of the picture, so to speak. I think it's fair to say that he's talking about class as much as race.
posted by Edgewise at 4:39 PM on January 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic.

Yeah, I think this was more about George Lucas being attached to it, rather than the story being about black dudes. Given the awful 'Meesa black stereotype' nonsense in the Star Wars prequels, I doubt anyone would want to fund a Lucas film about race relations.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:53 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am a little lost reading parts of this piece, and especially his comment about the sequel to Inside Man and Spike Lee. God knows Hollywood doesn't only make sequels when it's required, but I don't think Inside Man was really a movie that needed a sequel--it didn't strike me as a "franchise"-type movie. The example of George Lucas being turned down in my mind doesn't really help him establish anything other than the fact that past success doesn't mean your film will get greenlighted, and the point that Lucas was turned down trying to pitch a movie with black protagonists has to be tempered by the fact his movies have been shit for years, and when not part of Indiana Jones or Star Wars, downright terrible. I mean the overarching points in the piece really isn't something anyone can deny, but I find he hasn't argued it very well here or used the best examples.
posted by Hoopo at 4:54 PM on January 30, 2012


'Meesa black stereotype'

Now in 3D!

(Let's not forget the scheming asians and shady arab slave traders though - it's fun for everyone!)
posted by Artw at 4:56 PM on January 30, 2012


from article: “... hear muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instructions books made from the very harmonic innovations you created...”

usagizero: “So i guess that the instruments they used didn't come from Europe? It's not 'your' history, you may be a part of it, but you don't own it, no one does. Culture and music and such are fluid, they borrow from all over, it's natural and you better accept it. Denying it is like saying only pureblood people are best. The best things come from a mix and growth of them all.”

As a white guy who plays jazz and cares deeply about the music of the African-American tradition, let me just say that I appreciate that culture belongs to everybody in a certain sense; accepting that is the only way I can see my own work as having validity. African-Americanism is not only a race, it is a culture, and I can happily be part of the culture even though I'm not part of the race. But if there's one thing I've learned from this exchange, it's that the only way I can do this is by accepting with some humility the fact that my people did some terrible, terrible things to the people who first created the music I love.

That is my birthright, it is my responsibility, as sure as it's the birthright of African-Americans to take part in their music and their culture. The past doesn't just disappear; it's all around us. And I have a duty to make sure, as best as I can, that the sins of my forefathers are amended, and that the wrongs they brought into the world are put right. It may be true that history belongs to everybody, but when an entire race has for hundreds of years been denied its very birthright and had that birthright stolen and rebranded and profited from and ripped away continually and constantly, this is a wrong that we have a duty to set right.

I sense in this comment the fear some of us white people sometimes feel of what we call 'reverse racism' – the natural (I think) fear that, if we openly acknowledge the racism around us, then the terrible things which our parents and grandparents did to other people will be done to us. But this is not a necessary fear. It is not racist to believe that black music has been unfairly abused, ripped from the people that created it, used to make profit for people who had nothing to do with it. And you don't need to be someone who believes in "purebloods" to say that it is wrong that this has happened so many times in our history.

“His argument seems to be ‘i don't see ME portrayed!!’, well, join the club. I have yet to see a movie or film that accurately portrays me, and i'm white. Maybe because it's not that interesting to other people than me, or just because ‘hollywood’ doesn't take what it sees as a risk. If i wanted to make a film about me, i would have an even harder time than Spike Lee i bet you.”

We've been saying this for centuries, friend. It's a tool the powerful use to divide us. They tell us that 'black people complain, but us white people have it plenty hard, too!' Sure, everybody has it rough. But that only means we need solidarity, not divisiveness and bitterness.

Yes, we've had our own hard times. Yes, there are a lot of us white people who are unfairly underrepresented. Does that make it any less wrong when it happens so very often to people who aren't white?

So let's do this: let's fight side by side to make sure that people of color are represented with pride and with dignity in a way they deserve in films and in media, and to make sure that the disgusting biases of the past are not repeated over and over again. Let's fight side by side to make sure that black people don't have to keep playing maids in order to get cred as actors and actresses. I am willing to bet you that, if we do that, then people of color will stand and fight for us when it comes time to fight for the equal representation of poor white people, and for everyone's right to be treated with some respect. I know that the only reason we have to hope for this is our faith in their good will; but believe me when I say that historically that is a very good bet to make.
posted by koeselitz at 4:57 PM on January 30, 2012 [16 favorites]


The thing I'm confused about is his opinion of The Help. I haven't seen the movie, but from what little I know about it, it sounds like the sort of thing that he's asking for: a story about the underclass. I understand the irony he refers to when comparing to the Hattie McDaniels nomination, but that just seems to be on the face of it. I've heard very divided opinions about the movie itself; some say it is condescending, while others say it is uplifting. I'm not sure that I trust either crowd. Maybe I should just see this movie and make up my own mind.

It is partly a story about the underclass, but I think it was an equal part "black maids help young white girl realize her purpose in life" (similar to "Eat, Pray, Love", kind of). The real problem (to me) is that the maids are shown less having their own agency and more as supporting characters in One White Girl's Quest to Expose Discrimination.

Which isn't to say that that's not a story worth telling, but it's kind of weird to hold it up as a film about "the black experience" when it's mostly from a white perspective or how a white person discovered racial issues.
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:23 PM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Let's fight side by side to make sure that black people don't have to keep playing maids in order to get cred as actors and actresses

I wasn't clear from this piece either that the maid role was really the issue. It would be hard to do a 50s/60s period piece where none of the African American characters were in crappy jobs serving white people, wouldn't it? I thought the problem was more that the story was condescending and too many roles are lazy stereotypes.
posted by Hoopo at 5:33 PM on January 30, 2012


TBH I mainly hate on The Help because it's trite garbage and lazy filmmaking. I'll happily give Gone With the Wind a pass because it's good - and the same for The Color Purple if it's something that actually needs giving a pass. I'm shallow that way.
posted by Artw at 5:39 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think one reason The Help is popular is that by mediating the story through a white, sheltered, educated, upper-middle class woman, it helped other white, sheltered, educated, upper-middle class women understand issues of racism through a more personal, relational narrative where they had a stand-in they could easily place themselves in. That is, it used things the readers were familiar with to introduce them to the world of discrimination and servitude of the 60s South.

It is a limited story from a priveleged point of view, and you sort of know how it'll go, but it does a good job creating the 3 narrating characters (1 white, 2 black) and making you care about them and treating the racial issues of the era with some nuance, especially for a popular press book.

I think a lot of reviewers don't touch on how much the choies of womanhood and he challenges of family are themes ... Good and bad mothers, women who don't want to be mothers, who want to be but can't, women who can't care for their own children because they must work caring for other women's children, women who can't care for their own because of social class and PPD ... The struggles of all of the women in the book to be mothers, or escape motherhood, within this stringent society girt about with rules ... So mug of that was really poignant.

Anyway, I liked it, and if you go in knowing what it is, you might too
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm waiting for the sequel, about the white man who wrote and directed the screenplay about the white woman who wrote the book about the black maids. In 3-D.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:48 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think Inside Man was really a movie that needed a sequel

For what it's worth, the quote from the article is about the "follow-up" to Inside Man, which I took to mean "next movie from the same director," not necessarily a sequel per se.

But actually, no, looking for the panel discussion with Spike Lee mentioned in the article I came across this write-up of the Q&A in the LA Times, which does mention a planned sequel. I actually liked Inside Man fairly well for a forgettable summer popcorn flick, but it's bland pabulum with barely a trace of Lee's personality in it (or anyone else's, for that matter).
posted by whir at 6:14 PM on January 30, 2012


I'm usually annoyed by these Hollywood films where the white person is the black savior (or, if not savior, at least the whole movie has to be seen through the white person's eyes).

I liked The Help. First off, I disagree with McBride that he moans that it is fundamentally a step backward that two black woman are being honored for a film about maids. Any subject or occupation can make a worthwhile role.

I felt the white heroine could virtually be ignored in this film. Her story was secondary to the story of the Jackson society and hypocrisy as seen through the eyes of their maids. In the sense that the film focused on the cruelties of the middle and upper class the film was daring.

The film also did have some real moments of drama and humor.

The Help did suffer from the Hollywood tropes that Southern whites were either saints or evil. The black characters were heavy on the suffering (like Native Americans in virtually every film) and heavy on the religion as their one unifying source. But beyond that, the black actors sold their parts well as though they did have a life beyond the constraints of the screenplay. And perhaps that is why they are being rewarded: they had it both ways, fine acting and enough Hollywood to intoxicate the masses.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:18 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't seen The Help yet, but my educated guesses from the trailer and the talk I've heard, which of course are worth their weight in gold, are:

Well intentioned.
Takes what could be an almost humorously petty issue and then spins it as the last straw in breaking what abuses a human can take to their dignity.
Tries to be about the women telling their stories for the first time, as well as the fear in their circumstances surrounding telling their stories at all.
Filters this through the eyes of the white girl facilitating their stories being told.
Has a perhaps-too-clever title which on the one hand bitterly references the social status of the women being depicted, and yet also seems to reference the lead character, being the "help" they needed to get their stories out there, which comes across as unintentionally patronizing.

Am I wrong?

Anyway, I find it interesting that the one story that I think nearly everyone agrees does the "white man helps black man towards civil rights" thing well is To Kill a Mockingbird. (And possibly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but that's different and the ending for Jim is sort of deus ex machina so whatever.)

The two things about To Kill a Mockingbird which I think are most instructive here are

1. It is not a struggled filtered through the eyes of Atticus Finch. It is Scout's story, in which watching her father's defense of Tom Robinson plays a major role in shaping her life and worldview.

2. Tom loses. There is no triumph at the end, no "we won" moment for the whites to celebrate with the blacks they just scored a victory on behalf of. No. To the jury, Tom is just a colerred man and "for the love of God, do your duty" falls on deaf ears. It's like how Robert McKee analyzed the end of Raging Bull, "He hasn't learned a thing, but we have."

Together this means that Finch shares in the defeat, and that Scout learns about the true nature of racism, not just how awesome her father is (though her father is pretty awesome.)

Now, Do the Right Thing is, to me, the most accomplished film ever made about race relations, and it similarly ends on, if not "defeat" exactly, at least on an uncomfortable note. I like how white people generally end on the question of "should Mookie have thrown the trashcan through Sal's window" while Spike Lee says that he's gotten that question a lot, but never from a person of color. Sal isn't really a villain, after all. There are no real villains in the film (aside from the nameless cops) and throughout it we see escalating unwarranted badness from all races involved, but white audiences (and I can't say I don't include myself) focus on the trashcan through the window.

It's probably unjustified.

Raheem and Buggin' Out provoked Sal, without doubt.

And this is after Sal made a point about letting in his "best customers" after closing time, in what feels like an oasis of unity.

But the trashcan through the window also comes right after Raheem is shot down by the cops for no real reason. And we white people focus on the Pizzaria as being the unjustified damage.

And it is unjustified, but why don't we care more about Raheem? Is it because he was annoying? (and he was) Or because we saw his or some other black character's death by the end as inevitable, while taking out Sal's wasn't?

I don't have any answers there, but if you're doing a gfilm about race, raising tough questions is the important thing, I think.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:29 PM on January 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Personally, i've hated every film Spike Lee has made

I know taste is subjective and whatever, but that's a crying shame.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:28 PM on January 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's subjective indeed.

I rather liked She's Gotta Have It though I think it's been disowned.
School Daze I enjoyed.
Do the Right Thing was very interesting.
I thought he hit his stride with Mo Better Blues and Malcolm X.

Didn't mind Jungle Fever.

Haven't seen a thing since.
posted by juiceCake at 7:34 PM on January 30, 2012


Oh wait, I saw When the Levees Broke. Enjoyed that in the way you can enjoy a documentary about a devastating series of events and circumstances.
posted by juiceCake at 7:38 PM on January 30, 2012


He Got Game is fantastic. My ex-girlfriend and I caught it in the middle while in a hotel room once getting ready to go to a wedding, and even then it was almost impossible to turn away from.

Bamboozled isn't to everyone's tastes, and the DV is ugly as sin, but it worked gangbusters for me, and had a score which still haunts me today.

25th Hour is top-notch, beyond the curiosity of 1) it being Spike's first film with a white protagonist and 2) it being his first post-9/11 release, which the film notes. One of Lee's many strengths is his slow-build to a point, and this movie nails that down. The final scene, of Brian Cox driving Edward Norton to the prison, while imagining the unattainable alternative, proves what a master Lee is.

Inside Man is fun as hell, and is clearly a "money" project which Lee still infuses with his wit and viewpoint. I remember enjoying the whole thing, but only three moments in particular. First, the end with Jodie Foster, which made my white, Erin-go-Bragh Bouncer, filmmaker, film-lover roommate simply say, "fucking rich people." The others are the scene when they make the sikh take off his turban because they think he looks too Muslim-terrorist-y, and which humiliates the guy, and the scene in which the guy recognizes the voice as Hungarian, but doesn't speak it himself, and has to get his ex-wife to come in and translate. Excellent ways of making an action film also about the beauty and difficulty of diversity in NY.

So there are some other things to look into.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:48 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think one reason The Help is popular is that by mediating the story through a white, sheltered, educated, upper-middle class woman, it helped other white, sheltered, educated, upper-middle class women understand issues of racism through a more personal, relational narrative where they had a stand-in they could easily place themselves in.

Thanks for this, Eyebrows McGee.

I was all ready to get my hate on over this film, but that is a perspective that I hadn't considered. If it is helpful in that way, I am all for it. Not all of us are cut out to approach the subject academically.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:54 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


25th Hour is still the only good movie about 9-11, and about New York after 9-11.
He Got Game is straight up ridiculous.
posted by stratastar at 8:30 PM on January 30, 2012


Clockers.
posted by xigxag at 8:30 PM on January 30, 2012


He Got Game is straight up ridiculous.

Ridiculously good? Or worthy of ridicule?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:41 PM on January 30, 2012


It's certainly an interesting topic for discussion. I'm reminded of the lyrics to Why from rapper Jadakiss, where he says "Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar? Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?" in reference to Halle Berry's Academy Award for Best Actress (and infamous sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton) in Monster's Ball, and Denzel Washington's male equivalent Oscar (although he had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar already) as a crooked cop in Training Day.

I'm also curious as to what the author of this article thinks about someone like Quentin Tarantino and his depictions of blacks in his films. He mentions having worked with Spike Lee, who has had words over words with Tarantino in the past. In any case, personally I really enjoyed Pam Grier's role in Jackie Brown, although it's not my favorite Tarantino flick. And I'm really looking forward to his upcoming film Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx (in a role that was originally rumored to be going to Will Smith) and a host of other Hollywood talent, as is typical of Tarantino movies.
posted by Man Bites Dog at 9:11 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm waiting for the sequel, about the white man who wrote and directed the screenplay about the white woman who wrote the book about the black maids. In 3-D.

God I hated that movie. If you hated it too you'll love this.
posted by clarknova at 12:05 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've only read the book, not seen the film, but no matter how prominently the Black characters are featured, it is still written from the perspective of a privileged white woman and documents the heartwarming story of how she triumphs over adversity in order not to be a massive dick, unlike all the other privileged white ladies around her. It also allows its (let's be honest, mainly white, mainly female, mainly middle class audience) to feel good about themselves - "I would have behaved like (good white character) and not like (bad white character) if I were a privileged white lady in the Southern US in the 1960's."

And it's bullshit, because while very few people would be as straight-up evil as (bad white character), even fewer would have risked their own status and privilege to stand up for the rights of the marginalised like (good white character) does. Chances are that you, yes, you, would have been a racist dick if you lived in a time and place where being a racist dick was the norm. You may have been less of a racist dick than normal, and you may have followed the civil rights movement and learned how not to be a racist dick over time, but if you were a wealthy, country-club girl from small town Georgia, the chances that you would have happily welcomed a Black family into your neighbourhood (as homeowners), into your school, into your country club or into your social circle are pretty much zero.
posted by cilantro at 12:35 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


> Chances are that you, yes, you, would have been a racist dick if you lived in a time and place where being a racist dick was the norm. You may have been less of a racist dick than normal, and you may have followed the civil rights movement and learned how not to be a racist dick over time, but if you were a wealthy, country-club girl from small town Georgia, the chances that you would have happily welcomed a Black family into your neighbourhood (as homeowners), into your school, into your country club or into your social circle are pretty much zero.

While all this is true, the odds of a viewer of the film living in a time and place where being a racist dick was the norm are also pretty much zero. I believe the hope is that by putting themselves mentally in that time and place and undergoing the emotional experience the movie tries to provide them, viewers will be impelled not to be racist dicks in this time and place, which is surely a goal worth pursuing. I haven't seen the movie and so can't comment on the extent to which it lives up to that goal.

Two points:

1) Yes, the white-people-learn-a-lesson-from-black-suffering trope is extremely old and tired and you'd think Hollywood could do better.

2) There are a lot more white people than black in the US, and it is inevitable that most movies, especially high-profile movies, will be made with a white audience in mind; if those movies somehow make that audience more aware of racism and get them to think about their own complicity in a racist system, that is surely a good thing, no matter how clumsy the means employed. (And yes, most viewers will just pat themselves on the back for having seen a movie that dealt with a difficult subject and go on about their business as usual. But some will be changed in some degree, and that's about as much as you can ask of a Hollywood movie.)
posted by languagehat at 5:42 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


God I hated that movie. If you hated it too you'll love this.

Wow that is an awful article.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:20 AM on January 31, 2012


It would be hard to do a 50s/60s period piece where none of the African American characters were in crappy jobs serving white people, wouldn't it?

It's certainly hard to do a 50s/60s period piece about African-American characters in crappy jobs serving white people that isn't about African-American characters in crappy jobs serving white people. But I assure you that the ~18 million black people in America at that time were up to many other things. Working other jobs, having strange adventures, joining the army, going to school, falling in love, getting sick, losing their minds, seeing the world, building their communities, raising their own children, worshipping, womanising, thinking, drinking, doing good, being cruel, making art of every kind, and even scratching, clawing, scraping, and biting for their dignity and the rights all of us are entitled to, equally.

So Hollywood is really going to have to come up with some other excuse for treating black people like extra-dusky humanoid props again, again and once again. In any case, I thought movies were allowed to be about extraordinary things. I think if people are prepared to view the story of some 50s white girl and her astonishing feats of basic human compassion as actually worth their 115 minutes, well, imagine what it might do to them if something interesting actually happened rather than another standard issue situation emerging from the miserable, degrading, and yet curiously sassy fog that is black American history as reported by the entertainment industry. Seriously, fuck defending this tired old nonsense. It's sad enough for the people who get paid to do it without the rest of us joining in.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 6:22 AM on January 31, 2012 [13 favorites]


One thing I think critics of the film need to realize is that pretty much the only white public dissent in Civil Rights Era Mississippi came from journalists. And one of the most prominent was Hazel Brannon Smith of tiny and ultra-conservative Lexington MS, who by all accounts was otherwise a prototypical white southern belle. In real life, these journalists had far more life experience than the main protagonist of "The Help," but the idea that a white, would-be Junior League member and budding reporter would be a dissenter didn't come out of nowhere.
posted by raysmj at 6:23 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


raysmj: “One thing I think critics of the film need to realize is that pretty much the only white public dissent in Civil Rights Era Mississippi came from journalists. And one of the most prominent was Hazel Brannon Smith of tiny and ultra-conservative Lexington MS, who by all accounts was otherwise a prototypical white southern belle. In real life, these journalists had far more life experience than the main protagonist of "The Help," but the idea that a white, would-be Junior League member and budding reporter would be a dissenter didn't come out of nowhere.”

I think critics of The Help realize this. It's just that we also realize that very few of those white journalists would have dared to even imply that their experience as white journalists was central to the Civil Rights movement in any way, which is basically the entire premise of The Help.
posted by koeselitz at 7:50 AM on January 31, 2012


if those movies somehow make that audience more aware of racism and get them to think about their own complicity in a racist system, that is surely a good thing, no matter how clumsy the means employed.

I'm not so sure about that. It seems to me at least sometimes, people view participation in a low commitment window-dressing non-racist activity as permanently absolving them of any obligation to deal with the unpleasant day-to-day of actually being non-racist. They go through the theme-park version of dealing with racism without actually having to deal with racism, and afterwards feel they've earned the right to downplay future grievances or to check their own attitudes.

Look how the discourse seemed to take a nasty turn after the glow of electing Obama wore off. "We voted for one of you, now shut up already about racism."

That's not to say that some people aren't genuinely moved by films such as The Help. Just that some are, some aren't, and for some, there's a backlash effect, leading me to surmise that the sum total may be a wash.
posted by xigxag at 7:59 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chances are that you, yes, you, would have been a racist dick if you lived in a time and place where being a racist dick was the norm. You may have been less of a racist dick than normal, and you may have followed the civil rights movement and learned how not to be a racist dick over time, but if you were a wealthy, country-club girl from small town Georgia, the chances that you would have happily welcomed a Black family into your neighbourhood (as homeowners), into your school, into your country club or into your social circle are pretty much zero.

If I was born in another time and place in a different body and sex under different circumstances to different parents, yes, chances are that I would be different.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:06 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've read both The Help and The Secret Life of Bees (not seen the films though) and the latter isn't really comparable - it's about an (abused?) girl who runs away from home in the care of her black maid, and from what I remember, there's no white-girl-solves-black-problems narrative there. To be honest, though, given that The Help is popular fiction, it's probably reaching an audience who never previously thought about this stuff. The civil rights struggle isn't as well known over here; I've studied black feminism but only the period after the counter protests, and none of that stuff is taught in schools here. (Slavery, yes, afterward, no. Seriously, it wouldn't occur to me that many people had black maids then - I'm not from a class that has domestic help, and Asians were the biggest immigrant group where I lived.) I don;t know whether it's too hot button still to be part of US curricula, but I think we're forgetting that a lot of white people don't know a damn about what African-Americans went through then. And it's a shame it's not a book by someone who was there at the time, or can properly write from the black perspective, but there you go. And yeah, part of that does evoke the self-congratulatory feeling in the reader that Cilantro mentions.

To be honest, the most problematic thing for me in The Help is that the (white) author wrote the black chapters in a kind of African-American dialect. Small Island, which was written by a black but British author, did a similar thing but it wasn't nearly so cringeworthy - can a white author ever write in black vernacular without it seeming even slightly racist?
posted by mippy at 8:31 AM on January 31, 2012


I keep reading these threads where everybody hates "The Help," and I keep thinking something like what Eyebrows McGee said -- it's about *women*. Not just about black people. I've only read the book, not seen the movie. But seriously, what's wrong with telling a story about maids? A lot of women are maids and nannies, and even more are homemakers and mothers. And that's who this story is about. It's not about Malcolm X.

That seems like the problem that almost everybody has with this. "Why didn't you make a movie about a black hero who kicks the ass of white people!" You know, that would be a cool movie. But if you've got a two year old to take care of, there's only so much you can do.

Risking your job in a context where you won't get another one amounts to risking your children's lives, and that's a huge risk to take. And that's what the women in The Help do, and in the book it's made very clear how much they and their families have to lose, compared with how little is at stake for the author-stand-in character, Skeeter, who is not only white, but young and childless.

The author was a white girl raised by black women. She said in the introduction that she wanted to tell their story because the woman who took care of her was closer to her in some ways than her mother. It makes sense that she put a stand-in for herself in the story because the only authentic perspective she had was that of a young white woman who loved the black woman who raised her and was ashamed of how her parents' generation treated them. And it's not true that the white girl is the one who saves the day -- Aibileen writes her own story, and does as much as if not more than Skeeter does to help tell the others'. (And Skeeter's story, while not really as compelling as Abileen's and Minny's, is still an interesting one from a feminist perspective, about wanting a career in the 1960s...)

I think I read somewhere that after Viola Davis read the book *she* wanted to buy the rights to the script, in part because she thought "That's a lot of roles for black actresses, right there."

Maybe it's not great literature/cinema, but it sure as hell passes the Bechdel Test, is what I'm saying. It's great that it's so popular. Between The Help and Bridesmaids, it was a decent year for women in Hollywood...
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


But seriously, what's wrong with telling a story about maids?

Because those stories of black people in those same roles is getting tired. People have listed movie after movie that goes this same route, and obviously that is the subject of the OP. It's tired. I know I'm tired of it. I'm also tired of the same lame excuses as to why these films get made and then fawned over.

What's wrong with it? It's tired. Give it a rest. I hate it when people who make films and tv can't manage to cast nonwhite people in good roles, but then as soon as there is time for a scene with thugs, basketball players or the like, all of a sudden it's blackalicious. These excuses need to stop. Stop making the same shit. Stop regurgitating the same stories because it soothes people who have a narrow vision of what black men and women can or cannot do. Because that continues to end up here.
posted by cashman at 9:21 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


The attacks I just saw up here had nothing to do with the main protagonist's role being central, they had to do with making think that young white middle class women would've acted in the same way. If you wanted more about the back story of the Civil Rights Movement, say so already.
posted by raysmj at 9:32 AM on January 31, 2012


More accurately, the criticism on here is not that it gives white middle class women the idea that they wouldn't have acted dickish.
posted by raysmj at 9:42 AM on January 31, 2012


Okay, cashman, I see what you mean about wanting to see a movie where the black people aren't just the servants or the thugs. But I think The Help makes back the "redeeming social value" points it loses for showing black people as servants again, by showing women as something more than Love Interests for once.
posted by OnceUponATime at 10:11 AM on January 31, 2012


You might be interested in reading a press release regarding The Help from the Association of Black Women Historians.

Among other points, the article mentions this: "The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own." This is the most honest assessment of the story I've seen.

In the film, we're shown that the greatest thing a black woman could fear was having to use an outdoor bathroom, the loss of her job, and perhaps being reported to the police. We don't see anyone being coerced with sexual abuse. We don't see a casual remark by a white wife leading to her husband and his friends beating or killing anyone. We don't even really see an impact on the black characters after the murder of Medgar Evers.

A revenge prank casually played by one of the black women, played for laughs in the film, was worse than the real-life alleged act that cost 14-year-old Emmet Till his life. The white women this is confided to don't keep it a secret, and none of the characters ever point out what kind of repercussions could come about.

All there is is a white woman, already on the edges of her society and with little to lose, beginning to be aware of her social privilege. This is not a film for anyone hungry to hear about the lives of black women or of anyone involved with civil rights. The character of "Skeeter" in the movie is just there for Mighty Whitey purposes.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sallyfur -- what you (and the ABWH) say may be true of the film, I don't know, but it is not quite a fair description of the book.

"In the film, we're shown that the greatest thing a black woman could fear was having to use an outdoor bathroom, the loss of her job, and perhaps being reported to the police."

The loss of a her job and the blacklisting that would make it impossible to get another, or for anyone in your family to get or keep one is a matter of life and death to these marginalized women. It's not a minor consquence. Morever, the threat of violence on top of that threat of starvation is explicitly mentioned -- the white women might not come after you, but their husbands will come after your husbands and your sons.

"We don't see anyone being coerced with sexual abuse."

Minnie is physically abused (and sexually, by any reasonable definition) by her husband. She's not being abused by a white man, but it's because of her tenuous employment that she can't leave her abusive spouse.

White men aren't really the villains of the piece, white women are. But surely the villainy of white men of the time is well known, while the subtler but no less vicious threats used by their wives are rarely mentioned in popular discourse.
posted by OnceUponATime at 11:03 AM on January 31, 2012


Related and interesting (and well-written) reaction from writer Roxane Gay.
posted by editrixx at 11:20 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry--reaction to The Help, not to this.
posted by editrixx at 11:20 AM on January 31, 2012




Thanks, OnceUponATime.

I should have made it more clear I was speaking of the film only.

It reminds me of how I felt going to see Fried Green Tomatoes. Half the characters from the book disappeared, all of them black. It passed the Bechdel Test, but did nothing for intersectionality.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2012


My perspective on this film is somewhat at odds with the dominant discussion taking place in our culture about this film.

My girlfriend and I were the only white people watching it in a black church in West Philly after taking up her co-worker's standing invitation to come to one of their movie nights. Everyone else in the room was black and, with a few exceptions, of an age to remember the era portrayed in the film.

When the movie was over and the strange modern custom of clapping at a screen was finished, the discussion mainly revolved around how cool the character of Minnie Jackson was, and nobody really seemed to talk about the token white girl in the cast.
posted by snottydick at 12:10 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


OnceUponATime: “Sallyfur -- what you (and the ABWH) say may be true of the film, I don't know, but it is not quite a fair description of the book.”

Is it really untrue to say that Skeeter is the main character of the book? Are black males "depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent" in the book?

These are the accusations being leveled by the ABWH against The Help. It seems distinctly as though they've read the book they're criticizing.

“That seems like the problem that almost everybody has with this. ‘Why didn't you make a movie about a black hero who kicks the ass of white people!’ You know, that would be a cool movie. But if you've got a two year old to take care of, there's only so much you can do.”

I can appreciate that you might feel that way, but it seems to me that the Association of Black Women Historians is not asking Hollywood for Shaft Meets Malcolm X.

“I keep reading these threads where everybody hates "The Help," and I keep thinking something like what Eyebrows McGee said -- it's about *women*. Not just about black people. I've only read the book, not seen the movie. But seriously, what's wrong with telling a story about maids? A lot of women are maids and nannies, and even more are homemakers and mothers. And that's who this story is about... Maybe it's not great literature/cinema, but it sure as hell passes the Bechdel Test, is what I'm saying. It's great that it's so popular. Between The Help and Bridesmaids, it was a decent year for women in Hollywood...”

I think we need to work to make sure everybody's represented well in Hollywood (and in literature.) And I think if we try to say "well, this movie's a bit racist, but it does good thing for women!" – we'll ultimately be defeating ourselves. Like I said above, we need solidarity, not justice for just one group.
posted by koeselitz at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]




But seriously, what's wrong with telling a story about maids?

I think I see your confusion.

The Help is not "a story about maids." The Help "a story about how a privileged white girl learned what life was like for the maids she knew." It's like, the filmmakers thought we all needed that one degree of separation between us and the maids in question because otherwise maybe we wouldn't get it.

(In a similar vein: 2002's film Windtalkers. Seriously, the story of the Navajo Code Talkers from World War II would make an amazing movie all on its own. They really didn't need to throw in Nicholas Cage learning to find himself by guarding one of the Code Talkers or any of that nonsense.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:33 AM on February 21, 2012


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