Spiritual Cinema

A Little Help for My Friends:
Cinematic thoughts from your companion of color
A friend called the other night to hear my opinion on Kathryn Stockton’s, The Help.  He was the third to do so in about a week’s time and everyone said the same thing in the same way. I’d really be interested in your opinion, they confessed, with that funny emphasis on the word your, indicating that I specifically, harbored some coveted perspective. This curiosity for my opinion might be because I am a social worker, and thus have professional interests in race, oppression, and empowerment—all themes which characterize “The Help”.  I am also a writer and bibliophile so maybe it was just my bookishness that made people want to chat. But, most likely it was my blackishness as much as anything else that my friends relied on in response to this new bit of cinematic controversy. I have been proudly enjoying the benefits of bi-raciality for almost thirty years now, and this half-black-and- half-white thing has always allowed me to keenly relate to both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Truthfully, I wanted to know my opinion too, but, unfortunately I had neglected to read the book despite about a million recommendations.  So, this week I had to break my own book before movie rule and get my social-working-book-reading- half-black-self to the theater.  As I watched the film, three questions swirled in my brain from the conversations with each of my friends. I paid attention to every tear I cried and each butterfly that I experienced in my stomach, and afterwards I listened to the crowd to hear their reactions. And after all that, here are my responses:

Question Number One: Did the film make too little of oppression? Did it make being an underpaid, dehumanized maid look too quaint, overly- charming, or darn-right-fun?

In short, my answer is no.  Naturally, in The Help we see maids who love the children they care for and take pride in their perfectly fried chickens and who enjoy a sisterhood with one another because of their shared miseries; but, the film also regularly demonstrates a full spectrum of evil predicated on these families  from simple but unfair hardships, to violence and untimely death.  I was privileged to attend the movie with a woman in her sixties, around my mother’s age who enjoyed the film in a way that I cannot, and though she praised the movie and thought fondly of her own black nanny as she watched, when we left the theater she said quietly to herself, “It was way worse than what they showed in there.”  Visions of my grandmother working at the tables of white women flashed through my mind and I wished she were still here to tell me about it herself.

 We moved here when I was little,” My older friend continued, “and I don’t think I’ll ever forget being down there on seventh street where they had separate fountains. And I just kept asking why? Just kept thinking of my nanny and wondering why it had to be that way.” 

This was an oppressive time for everyone. If this film needs to atone for any sin (which I don’t believe it does) it is only for having neglected to include a more comprehensive set of discriminatory practices, but certainly not for glorifying the black maid gig in the least.

Question Number Two: Does it leave people thinking, those were the old days and racism is gone?

This concern that the film will leave privileged audiences, thirsty to assuage their own white-guilt  with a “those days are gone” mentality, is a valid one.  Wouldn’t you know, the minute we stepped out of the theater I heard a young woman say sweetly, “Aren’t you glad it’s not like that anymore? I mean, can you even imagine?” And my first answer is yes, I am glad; because, I am deeply thankful for everyone of every color who helped create a world where I, a black woman according to “one drop” standards can sit in a room of college professors as a peer, rather than an ignored, if not invisible, coffee-deliverer.  And even more important to me is this, as the movie finished and I sat there drowning in my own mess of salty tears and streaming snot, the white woman next to me reached into her purse and handed me one of her tissues without so much as a fleeting thought about what negro-disease I might be passing on. I am also tremendously thankful that it has been years now, since someone told me that they would never date or allow their family members to date a black person,--but, it has only been a few years.

                So when someone says to me, “aren’t you glad it’s not like that anymore” my other answer is no.  I am not glad because that statement isn’t all that accurate. It is true that I don’t have to be someone’s servant, and I would never be so disrespectful as to characterize myself in the same vein as those who were.  But, my brothers  and nephews are still more likely to be pulled over by a police officer than those of my white friends, and my cousin Kizziah is less likely than my WASP cousins on the other side of my family to get a job because of her “ethnic” name, and I still have to listen to horrifying jokes, presumptions and categorizations of people of color that silently and steadily keep us in states of brokenness and second tier living ; not to mention what my gay and immigrant friends must experience each day that they remain disregarded, disenfranchised and dishonored . So, I do hope that in watching this film, people will thank God for how things have changed and concurrently beg Him for more to come--and for the strength to be that change in each of our individual spheres of influence.

Question Number Three: Does the film repeat a cinematic tradition of elevating white individuals as benevolent saviors of poor black people?

As I chatted with that old friend on the phone the other night he told me that he had left the theater identifying more with the criminality of the majority of white people in the film and less with the heroics of Skeeter, who some would call the movie’s protagonist.  I know him and I believe him. Furthermore, I think there are plenty of others who will feel the same sense of shame for having been even superficially associated with one group of people who would treat another group of people with such profound vulgarity, just as I share, however superficially in the embarrassment of having been victimized.  

I also believe that any film or literature is to some degree a projective measure, meaning that we see and hear and receive just what we want to see and hear and receive from it. What comes naturally for us is what we will read into and play out in our literary and theatrical diversions.  Leaving the building, I heard a third and final woman’s voice declare proudly, “I would have been Skeeter.” And perhaps she would have been. I don’t know her as well as my old friend on the phone so I can’t make a judgment on the trustworthiness of this bold assertion.  What I do know, is that we have the opportunity and responsibility to ask ourselves which part we each currently play in today’s versions of pride and prejudice.

We all have opportunities every day to be a Skeeter or Aibileen, but we also have an equal, if not greater, chance to be a Ms. Hilly Holbrook. She doesn’t consider herself to be an “actual racist” like the ones she warns Skeeter about.  Instead, she thanks the maids publicly for all their help at the big charity benefit, she uses her faith to disseminate a “God helps those who help themselves” doctrine and she believes that there is kindness in “separate but equal”; better yet, she believes there is such a thing as separate but equal.  And sometimes, that is me too. Sometimes I am Hilly Holbrook. So, I have to choose to watch and read each story like this with the understanding that I am as much villain as I am hero.

 I do not think it is wrong to illuminate heroism demonstrated by anyone, regardless of race; because if any individual with some amount of power acknowledges that power and is willing to lose some of that power on behalf of another, she is heroic and worth the recognition. But, an individual is also a heroine if, like Aibileen, despite her powerlessness, she finds the voice and courage with which to speak and stand up. The Help, in my estimation, shows us the beauty and bravery of both kinds of protagonists. How we talk and teach and preach about it is up to each of us.