January 29, 2012

"The Help": Oscar Buzz to Oscar Nod

I am a movie lover that prefers to wait until the film is released on DVD because I love to watch them in the comfort of my home with family and friends. We like to be close to all of our favorite movie-watching amenities: home cooking, comfortable seating, the remote (to adjust the surround-sound if needed and, yes, to rewind on consensus of the viewers). Importantly, we want to be close to the mini-fridge stocked with ice cold beer. So, you can understand why it's difficult to get me into a theater. Nevertheless, I dropped a few dollars at the box office to see "The Help." Shortly after seeing the film, my friend Susan and I shared some thoughts about the subject matter of the movie. This is a good time to revisit the substance of the picture given the recognition the film has gotten from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Z.: I told myself I would not watch “The Help.” My thinking was that, “It’s just another of many films that romanticize (for Whites) an oppressive era of Black-American history.” This is not the first time I made this decision “Roots” is another example. To date, I have not seen that film. Passing on movies like these is not uncommon among Black Americans.

You see, I was very concerned about how the subject matter of “The Help” would be treated. How, I thought, could one make a Disney film based on Jim Crow prohibitions and oppressive societal structures? To me, it is like making a Disney film of the lives of migrant farm workers, or the victims of human trafficking, or the people who survived Auschwitz.  

There are two reasons that I changed my mind about seeing “The Help.” One, there is a great deal of talk about America being a post-racial society. I don’t necessarily believe this claim but if it is the case I anticipate that there should be a reflection of this in popular culture. So, I was curious to see if and how race-based films would differ from films prior to this new era that some believe has arrived. Two, a good thing that is a product of “The Help” is that it gives us an opportunity to discuss race, American society, and the portrayal of American society in movies.

What are your general thoughts about “The Help,” Susan? Did you enjoy the movie?

Susan: I read the book last summer and loved it and when I heard about the movie I thought, I want to see it. Then I read a review by Duchess Harris who was angry about the film. My interpretation is that she felt marginalized and resentful that a book on this topic by a White woman would create such a stir given that it isn’t that good and there are other, better books by Black authors that have never been recognized. She also objected to the way the Black characters’ speech patterns were represented in the book and that none of the White characters’ speech was written as poorly as it was spoken. Then I thought, forget it I’m not going to see it. I get what she is talking about and I had those same thoughts, as well. But as I read more, and saw the controversy developing, I thought well, I can’t judge unless I go see it.

I was born in 1952 and I grew up in Long Island, far from the South. We were lower middle class, on the edge of poverty. However, we had a cleaning lady who came to our house once a week because my mother had a bad back and couldn’t clean the house. All but one was Black. Willie Mae, Nancy, and Grace cleaned our house once a week, on Wednesdays.

Z.: It’s interesting that your family had the experience of having help in your home in the North. Some people think that having “help” was a phenomenon peculiar to the South. In fact, a byproduct of the great migration to the North by Southern Blacks was that they had to find menial jobs and a multitude of Black women worked as maids in the homes of White families.

Something that stood out for me while I was watching “The Help” was how domestic servants were portrayed as a uniquely Black-American phenomenon of the Civil Rights era. In fact, “the help” in America has been Chinese, Latin American, as well as other marginalized groups. “The help” has and still does include immigrants (legal and illegal) in this country. From a global perspective, it is not uncommon for “the help” to be brought from developing countries to serve wealthy families around the globe. However, because of the American practice of exporting our culture through movies and other forms of media, “The Help” characterizes Black-Americans as a poor, under-educated, serviceable people best suited for menial work. This practice is a regular feature in American movies for, I believe, hegemonic purposes.

Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen
Susan: In fact, it was every marginalized group from the beginning. The first indentured servants were English trying to work off their passage to the New World. But the wave of Irish and other immigrants have experienced this, too. Even more, this is a global experience. It is not exclusive to the South or to the U.S.

I sometimes think the wealthy conservatives hate welfare because it took away the cheap workforce. Before the existence of social safety nets, you didn’t need to be rich to have a staff of servants in your home, maintaining the grounds, and taking care of your children.

Z.: One of the things that I think is fascinating about the film is that Hilly and her fellow League members do not experience a drop of cognitive dissonance related to treating “the help” so poorly and extending charity to children in Africa. What the women were doing was in every respect hypocritical, yet, I don’t believe that the League women understood the disconnect between their everyday behavior and their charity efforts.

Susan: I agree. The characters, and many like them in real life, just don’t see the connection, or rather, disconnection. And the characters felt as if their bake sale could really help those “poor” children in Africa. I also suspect that the cakes and pies baked by “the help” were donated by “the help”—making the charity gala a farce.

This also reminds me of the scene where Constantine is consoling Skeeter Phelan about her relationship with her mother, Charlotte Phelan. She tells Miss Skeeter that her mother had no choice about the life she is leading. But that Skeeter actually does have a choice. Constantine believed that Skeeter’s sensitivity and intelligence is allowed her to see the problems that her mother and Miss Hilly can’t see.

Z.: One of the reasons that I rarely watch movies like “The Help” is because they ALWAYS portray Black-Americans as caricatures existing for the purpose of building the character of their oppressors at their own expense. For Whites, Blacks movie characters are the balm of Gilead to soothe the guilty conscience of inhumane and heartless actors. Aibilene did this for Elizabeth Leefolt through caring for the child she neglected because Mae Mobley wasn’t pretty or slim enough to appeal to her own mother. In this role, Aibilene mended the soul of the family she worked for by ensuring that their next generation was capable, confident, and well-functioning.

I find a character that meets this specification in every movie about Black life written by a White person. I have always been interested in why this is an important element for White writers and by extension, European-American society.

Movies like “The Help” create two sides of a coin, if you will. There is the inaccuracy, damage, and hegemony that critical analysis uncovers, and the enjoyment of well-played roles which are appreciated by audiences.

Image from: Oscars.org
Soon after “The Help” reached theaters, buzz about Oscar glory began to circulate. This is for good reason, so many of the roles are executed superbly, making it, artistically, a great film.

On January 24th, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced “The Help” among the nominations for Best Picture. Viola Davis is nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I am surprised, though, that Bryce Dallas Howard did not get an Oscar nod for her role as Hilly Holbrook, the perfect villainess.

Images from: nydailynews.com
The awards will be presented to the winners on what is now referred to as Oscar Sunday, February 26, 2012.

Photo Credits: Civil Rights Woman Being Arrested, whatwillmatter.com; Birmingham, AL 1963, democraticunderground.com; Freedom Riders, United Press Internationa; Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen, IMDb.

January 24, 2012

Paterno: Remembering a Tainted Sports Legend

Facebook is a space where my friends and I engage in discussions on issues in the news and topics of interest. Below, is an exchange we shared recently.

Z.: The news is that Joe Paterno has died. I will not pretend to hope that he rests in peace. His soul should be forever troubled by the fact that he didn't do everything that he could to protect innocent children from sexual abuse by the assistant coach that worked for him.

Given the fact that Paterno transferred ownership of his financial assets to his wife soon after news broke about the Penn State scandal I wonder if he is, in fact, deceased. It was also after the public learned about Paterno’s involvement in the scandal that he announced he had cancer. It would not be the first time that wealthy individuals faked their death to protect their assets and avoid prosecution.

The new report said that his death is a big loss to the sports world. Clearly, their children were not victimized while in the custody of Penn State coaches.

It's sad that, in some people's minds, sports is more important than people and that the dead deserve more respect than the living. My respect is for the children (now men) who came forward to testify against the Penn State pedophiles and system that abused them.

Kelly: I have mixed feelings...he was a legendary coach and his record in that area speaks for itself. I wish he could have been a stronger man...he will be remembered for his failings rather than his accomplishments.

Z.: Based on the news threads that I've been reading regarding Paterno's death I understand that a lot of people feel as you do, Kelly. Of course, I respect your feelings and right to disagree with me. But I have a question for you; would you have mixed feelings if you were one of the children that were violated or the parent of one of those children?

Kelly: No my feelings would be much different I would imagine. I don't think I would be focused on Paterno though but rather the bastard who abused me.

Z.: I've heard and read about that argument as well. But ethically and legally, Paterno had a duty to do everything in his power protect the children in his care. Penn State recognizes this and that is why he was fired. More correctly, Penn State fired Paterno to minimize their culpability. Nevertheless, Penn State's and Paterno's silence makes them as responsible for the violation of the children as Sandusky.

Mark: I just think he lost the desire to live and he and his family decided to stop any treatment he was going through. He died a broken man with guilt burning in his conscious and that has to be a horrible way to die.

Kelly: Make no mistake, I do not condone his actions or lack thereof...it is just a horrible tragedy and it is a shame that because of his limitations as a person, his lifetime achievements are lost. Having said that, he deserves much worse for burying his head in the sand and not doing anything to protect these kids.

Mark: Z., I do agree that we put too much emphasis into sports and sports figures. I can only imagine how different this country would be if the masses would put the same kind of energy into the ills of this country! Things like this only further my belief that humans will never be capable of policing themselves fairly and a greater intervention is necessary if we're to advance as a global society. I have no reason to believe otherwise. I watch very little sports these days. What it use to fulfill within is now placed with something real and complete and it's just no room for things that are irrelevant!

Kelvin: Z., I agree with a lot of your comments, but I will say that I never wish ill will on any man or his family. I feel bad for him and his family. He seemed to have been an over-all good man. He affected many young people's lives in a very positive way. He gave them many opportunities that they may not otherwise have ever gotten, on and off the field. He has influenced young people to do great things and some of those great things include look out for children and protect them from abuse. Do I think that he did enough to stop that horrible person that he trusted as a friend, HELL NO!! Do I think that he should have been punished for that, HELL YES!! But his life's work should not be diminished because of that one mistake.

Kelly: Kelvin, you stated it much better than I did! Thank you!

Bo: College football is BIG business and ran as such we all know how successful the coach was in his business, but when it came to how he looked the other way when it came to a horrible cover up he flunked horribly...does this take away from his football business prowess, no. But in personal character yes. I don't know if he made peace with his maker or not but I do know that football is what you do and in life we can do many things to make a living...covering up something as horrible as that is who you are. You have to look at who you are every day in the mirror.

Z.: Kelvin, oh no, I don't *wish* ill on Paterno or his family but I do not agree that his life's work is more important than the ruined lives of those children who were victimized by Penn State representatives and the system. Even if it were only one mistake the seriousness of that mistake would extinguish any reverence I would have had for Paterno. But Paterno knew that Sandusky is a repeat child molester, violating numerous children over several years. Paterno looking the other way tells me that his life's work was more important to him than the lives of children and families that trusted him and his program. He nullified his own life's work, IMHO.

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