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.

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