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Film Review: How The Help Failed Us

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The Help tells the story of a plucky young writer, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who has decided to write a book about black maids who raise white children in her hometown. We are in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. Jim Crow. Segregation. Lynching. Medgar Evers assassinated. Still, this movie aspires to make you feel good.

And it failed.

The only positive thing about this movie is that it put several good Black actors on a screen before a wide audience. Maybe this movie will be a vehicle to higher ground for some of them.

The graceful Viola Davis plays Aibileen convincingly but we knew she was magical after we saw her opposite Meryl Streep. The renowned thespian herself urged the Hollywood powers that be to "give her [Davis] a movie" during the 2009 SAG Awards.

There has been much praise for Octavia Spencer's Minnie. Spencer committed to the role but in the end Minnie is an "sass-mouthin'" Mammy who "lah to fry chicken" and makes farcical facial expressions because you know Black folks of that era were all "slow of speech and slow of tongue." Hmm hmm.

Emma Stone played her role, Skeeter, faithfully, affecting an awkward walk that bespeaks her character's socially maladroit behaviors. She's a college-educated woman who is actively pursuing a writing career. She does not seem interested in marriage, has never been on a proper date. When she speaks to the Black maids about their hardships she has the innocent look of someone who knows she's landed on something big but doesn't know exactly what. She takes the fact that they are breaking the law at face value. Her ambition to produce "serious writing" about something "that makes her uncomfortable" overrides her fear. She is, as The Washington Post's Express columnist Kristen Page-Kirky puts it, "magically, emphatically not racist."

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Octavia Spencer (Minnie) has said "I think this movie transcends the time period that it's portraying. If this project makes us go into our daily lives and makes us view those who facilitate our lives -- whether it's your personal assistant, your gardener, your cleaning lady, whoever -- if you aren't treating them with a level of respect, then, hopefully, after seeing this movie, you will understand the importance of that."

She is right in that the movie is about a contemporary issue -- abuse of domestic workers. But, that is precisely why this movie failed. This movie's tone makes it clear that it is talking about 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. It is too tight a context to allow us to think of our current maids, gardeners, and nannies. If it did that people would not have cried joyously in the theatre, feeling so good that we have come so far, they would have been ashamed.

If director Tate Taylor wanted to make a film about the plight of domestic workers, he might have made one about a Hispanic or Haitian nanny in Brooklyn.

Women, foreign-born and people of color account for 95 percent of domestic workers, says a 2009 UCLA study. The study also reports that 33 percent of respondents said they had suffered verbal/physical abuse. Another 35 percent declined to answer, which means maybe. According to a study from the states of California and New York there are a total of 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States. Sixty percent of these people say they receive less than minimum wage, which means about 60 percent of employers are willfully violating the Law.

So there is plenty of strife to wrestle with here in our day, if the filmmakers wanted to make a conscious-raising movie.

"Women like me will see "The Help" and think we're like Skeeter because we have some black Facebook friends," Kirby admits. "Combating our privilege is something we have to learn to do, sometimes daily -- and the fact that Skeeter does it in a world where her higher status is assumed as the natural order of things is pure fairy tale."

The movie goes out of its way to give us the white trash character of Celia who been ostracized by the whole society of polite white women who hold bridge parties. The rumor goes she got married after she had been knocked up by someone's else beau.  This character behaves like a child, talks like a child and dresses in ice-cream flavor colors. When she hires Minnie as her maid, she responds to her as if to a mother. This relationship is meant to be a counterweight to the blatant racism of other characters, most notably Hilly who now refuses to share a bathroom with the maid who raised her. But Minnie and Celia form a fairy tale relationship for Celia holds financial power over Minnie. They could never be equal or anything like mother and daughter because Celia prances around in a halter top while Minnie sweats over her paw-paws in a uniform, complete with white stockings. {I don't suppose sheer brown had yet been invented!}

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The movie uses the same language to convey the real dangers that blacks faced in the segregated South and for trivial spats between the characters, conflating the situations which are incomparable. Manohla Dargis from The New York Times rightly points out that the most poignant sequence in the movie is when, having heard news of Medgar Evers' assassination, the bus driver orders all negros off the bus. (There was concern that Blacks might get violent, riots might erupt). Aibileen (Viola Davis) gets off the bus "and then this sturdy, frightened woman starts running as if her life were in danger, because it's Mississippi, and it is."

Then Minnie tries to explain to her boss Celia, who wants to impress her husband with her non-existent culinary skills, why she could not be her secret maid. Her husband had to know Minnie had been hired for if he found her on his property, he might "shoot me." This line is said in exaggeration and played for laughs. But it is not funny. There are enough stories of white folks shooting black folks for petty reasons made legitimate in the era of Jim Crow.

Later Celia's husband does find Minnie on the property.  She runs, he chases her. The audience laughs. This is akin to creating a scene where a Jew is running from someone she thinks might be a Nazi sympathizer but who is in fact just a friendly guy. That scene would not be acceptable. It is never acceptable to make light of the Holocaust. Why is it acceptable to make light of segregation?

There are things that you must have whole or not at all.If the Civil Rights activists had compromised and said we are no longer slaves, that's Freedom enough, where would we be?

Freedom cannot bear compromise. You are either wholly Free or not at all. So they marched and they sang and they endured. The truth is another thing that will not bear fragmentation. If you deal in truth, then you must give the whole truth. Yet, this movie took on segregation as if it were a sidebar. They wanted to show the truth of it but not too much, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. They mentioned Evers being shot but they did not show the extent of that tragedy or what it really meant to the movement. They treated Minnie's defiance of white people as if it were just bad girl naughtiness. What she did with that pie could have got her killed!

Minnie baked a special pie for her former white employer who fired her because she had used the house bathroom while a hurricane tore through Jackson, killing at least 10 people.

Once the filmmakers had made the shit joke, they kept referencing it over and over again. Cheap laughs.

Are we so over racism that we can now laugh at it? I do not think so. Some of the same problems that separated us then separate us now. People will say "But I have nothing against black people!" I applaud you. Yet the fact remains that "79 percent or more of black and Hispanic children in public schools cannot read or do math at grade level in the fourth, eighth or 12th grades."

Perhaps we have, in some places, in some stations, in some professions, achieved equality of opportunity. Every black person knows that equality of opportunity is a hard-earned victory against real adversities like unequal access to education and fantastical adversities -- those battles we have to fight against the shadow of ourselves. The shadow at your heel, stalking you, relentlessly asking "Who do you think you are? When has a Black Person ever _____ (Insert here your greatest dream)?"

That question persists in some minds because we have yet to achieve de facto equality, when there is a truly representative political class, a truly representative merchant class, a truly representative prison population.1

Until then the shit in the pie is just a distraction.

Notes:

1.  Federal Bureau of Prisons: 38 percent of prisoners are Black yet Blacks only make up 13 percent of the population at large.

 I raise two virtual pennies for your thought. Did you love, hate, or just avoid this film? Tell us in the comments!