Twenty years ago filmmaker Julie Dash celebrated the release of her groundbreaking film Daughters of the Dust. The film, set off the South Carolina coast, chronicles the lives of a black family, led by family matriarch Nana Peazant, at the turn of the 20th Century. Shot by cinematographer Arthur Jafa the film offers a brilliant portrait of black life, between and betwixt the modernity that would radically transform it. The film also offers one of the most complex and sophisticated views of the lives of black women in the era. It is a measure of how forward thinking Dash's Daughters of the Dust was and how backward Hollywood remains 20 years later, that a film like The Help could be lauded as an intimate and authentic depiction of the lives of the Black women who worked as domestics. The tragedy is that far fewer people have seen, let alone, heard of Daughters of the Dust.
As I watched The Help -- with my soon 13-year-old daughter sitting next to me -- I couldn't help but think about the daughters of Daughters of the Dust and the daughters of The Help. In Daughters of the Dust, there wasn't a question as to whether these young women were facing progress, but rather whether that progress would be enveloped with the hard-earned integrity that helped their family survive the middle passage and enslavement. With The Help, I was left witnessing Minny Jackson (in a brilliant, Oscar deserving performance by Octavia Spencer) bequeathing to her barely teenage daughter, a life of servitude and labor exploitation. In one of the film's more insidious moments, The Help passes off Minny's daughter's future as the product of the demands of Minny's abusive (and invisible) husband and not the very visible system of Jim Crow that limited opportunities for such women and girls for more than a century.
Both my grandmother and my mother-in-law were domestics at one time or another during their lifetimes. My grandmother, now deceased, worked as a domestic for a time in the late 1960s for former New York Mets manager Davey Johnson, then a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. My mother-in-law worked as a domestic until her husband could acquire the kind of job that would allow her to stay at home and raise their children, the youngest of which is my wife. I imagine that both my grandmother and mother-in-law would readily admit that their experiences as domestics were far different than those experienced by black women in the deep south in places like Jackson, MS, where The Help is set.
Unlike Minny, my grandmother was able to raise daughters -- my mother and aunts -- who would not have to spend their lives working as domestics, but instead had careers as teachers, health-care workers and ministers. It was the same with my mother-in-law, whose two daughters both earned college degrees, in part because she could give her daughters the attention that they deserved, instead of the children of the families that she once worked for.
My own 13 year-old daughter, offered little comment after viewing The Help, sensing that her parents had critiques that she did not share. She is of a generation of young blacks for which multiculturalism is the default position; I imagine that the heroic white person, whether found in The Help or The Blindside (which she cites as her favorite film) offers comfort within that multi-cultural worldview, as Tea Partiers, Birthers and segregationists in the neighboring Wake County threaten to turn back the clock on her. In this regard, one of the biggest failings of The Help is that a teenage black daughter could watch the film and come away not fully understanding the sacrifices made by the black daughters that came before her; that black daughter that allows her to take comfort in the very heroic white figures that Hollywood continues to manufacture.