Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Help: Will You See The Story Or Just Its Race?

This one's for you, Debbie :-)

We Needed Some Help To Discuss Racial Issues

Several years ago while still working in NC as a tv producer, I participated in a program called Study Circles on Race Relations. Since I helped produce a show about racial issues, I thought it would be good research. So once a week for about a month I listened to a group of mostly black and white people of various ages and backgrounds freely address how racial discrimination impacted their lives.

Black women, some of which had experienced Jim Crow first hand, expressed their long suppressed bitterness with such candor it was a rude awakening to some white women in attendance. Words were exchanged, conversations escalated, tears rolled, and most often white women, visibly shaken, left the discussion and never returned. They weren't ready, weren't ready for that kind of blatant honesty that slapped them in the face and shattered any misconception that race relations were better then than they were 50 years before.

"The Help" Tells The Story, But Who's?

Fast forward more than a decade. As I sat in a Hollywood screening room watching "The Help" I was reminded of those emotional Study Circles as a black maid in 1960s Mississippi listens to her employer's friends discuss building separate bathrooms for their Negro maids as a sanitary measure. The look on the maid's face speaks volumes and I wondered, if in 2011, white women were really ready to hear what black women had to say about them then. Seemingly, yes when what's said is written and directed by white people.

So, at FIRST glance "The Help" may not represent the way we, as black folk in 2011, like to view ourselves. Playing maids is so "Hattie McDaniel". We've overcome that, right? We do have a black president in office after all! But as we've seen, sometimes even the POTUS gets treated like he should cross the street if "Mrs. Anne" should happen along. I digress...

Adapted from the best-selling novel, "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, and directed by her childhood friend, Tate Taylor, a white first time director, we--meaning black folk--naturally question whether the black woman's perspective will be told correctly. Hollywood ain't known for always being culturally astute.

"The Help" Tells Shared Story

But appearances THIS TIME can be deceptive. Book flaps and movie trailers don't show nor tell the whole story. So don't be quick to let your eyes deceive you! The story told in "The Help" is deeper than mere race; it's a human story that demonstrates that your job, your race, your position doesn't define who you are unless you give it permission to.

"The Help" is also a story of friendships, some that are life long, like that of Aibilene (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer); some that eventually grow apart, Skeeter (Emma Stone) and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard); and some that grow out of a shared risk and mutual respect.

Like the book, the film takes you through a range of emotions and will undoubtedly touch some hearts and minds of those that have lived it. I witnessed women AND men wipe away tears during the screenings, while others literally stood and applauded. I credit that to the actors for really giving flesh to what was written on the page. No one can TELL the black woman's story better than she can EXPRESS it herself. But remember the true story in "The Help" is more than skin deep because it's a part of the author's life story as well. Of course, the book is better!


Little Me said...

I had not intended to see the movie, nor have I read the book. My reason being that as a white woman I get frustrated by white America thinking they understand and can correctly communicate what it is to be a black person in America. I find it smacks of conceit. I, of course, was only seeing white and black and not the true story. I thank you for your perspective. I will read the book and perhaps catch the movie once it hits DVD.

As a black woman do you feel that race relations are better now than they were then? I like to think that they are, but then, I like puppies, kittens and happily ever after romance novels.

BAM said...

I enjoyed the movie and the book. It is a part of the healing process to bring the unsaid to air. Can we stop referring to ourselves as black and white? This is where the separation begins. Just wondering?

Yoga Mom with a thing for fiber said...

I read this blog after being impressed by a few comments of yours on a mutual friend's FB page. I cannot agree with you more. The shared stories; the differing kinds of friendships; the coming of age of Skeeter; the depiction of Jackson, MI during the rising civil rights movement; the dismissive attitude of white communities to it (the agent in NY who thinks it will blow over so write fast before the opportunity is gone). This is a richly woven piece. Is it what a black author and director would have envisioned? Probably not. Is it more than yet another "blacks need whites to save themselves?" Absolutely.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Little me in regards to getting the perspective of a member of a different race. Bottom line we are all in the human race and the heart is colorblind. Good movie and bravo to the director who was savvy enough to buy the rights ,stick to his guns and not let the bullies of hollywood steal this project away from him ! said...

@Little Me... Thank YOU for sharing your perspective. Yes race relations have improved since the 60s, if they hadn't there would not be a Black President of the United States. So there's hope, but every now and again things happen to remind us that we're still not as far ahead as we could be. And I like puppies, kittens, and happily ever after romance novels too. Dwelling on our commonalities is the first step to human relations, not just racial ones. said...

@BAM If we stopped referring to each other as black or white we would only find some other way of separating ourselves based on physical traits. Like saying blondes vs brunettes or light skinned vs dark skinned.

IMO is not so much about being called black or white as much as it is about what's attached to the distinction. said...

@Yoga Mom Your comment "This is a richly woven piece. Is it what a black author and director would have envisioned? Probably not." brings me pause. Why? Because I don't know if you're saying "The Help" would not have been as good if it had been written and directed by a Black person. That's a slippery slope IF that's what you're saying.

Black writers and directors are pigeon-holed with that kind of thinking that black artists can only write/direct for black audiences where in white ones have the "vision" to be everything for everyone.

It's also that kind of thinking that keeps white audiences from seeing films with predominantly black casts. Yet black audiences are known to support both--films with all white audiences and black ones.

I need your comment clarified. said...

@Anonymous....Actually the director didn't have to be savvy. He and author, Kathyrn Stockett are childhood friends. She basically gave him the hookup on directing the film because she said they have similar experiences with their "help" as kids.

In fact, Viola Davis said at NAACP screening SHE was going to option the book but Stockett had already given the rights to her friend, Tate Taylor.

Brie said...

You know this movie has brought up a lot of discussions and a little bit of a controversy just the other day, a friend of mine said "If that movie was directed by a black man, I bet you it would have been poorly directed and twisted"

This is not the first time I have heard such from people when it comes to movies depicting racism such a The Help. Racism is a very sensitive topic that most people want to either ignore or deny. That's why I love it when books and movies like this tell the story.

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