Monday, August 15, 2011

'The Help' is not about a 1960's civil rights movement or the physical rape of Black women

The Help garnered $25 million over the weekend, proving the critic's nitpicking is unfounded. I saw the movie Friday, and I looked for the fault finding that Black and White critics discussed on their blogs and in newspapers. Their commentary reminds of all the brouhaha about The Color Purple, in which  Danny Glover played  "Mr”, a mean spirited abuser of his young wife played by Whoopi Goldberg. 

The NAACP did not like The Color Purple. At one of its annual award shows, the organization ignored Glover and Goldberg. The NAACP said the movie “aired Black people's dirty laundry in public.” Issues exposed in the movie should be kept private. It's as though they did not want anyone to know that the Black community has its share of dirty laundry and dirty characters.

Well Lord, howdy, NAACP! Black communities everywhere have their share of mean, abusive  husbands like "Mr." We have men who rape their daughters! We have husbands and wives who are unfaithful to their mates! We have cheating men in the pullpit preaching about morality and righteousness every Sunday morning! We do a pretty good job of "airing our dirty laundry in public without the help of a movie!

I got off track there for a minute. Don't get me started on Black folk being proper and outraged about airing our dirty business!

Pictured top and bottom actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Udate: Octavia Spencer was the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Ward winner. She won the Best Supporting Actress, 2012 Academy Awards; Viola Davis won the Academy's Leading Role award, she was also up for Best Actress (she didn't win); the movie won  The Outstanding Ensemble in a Motion Picture, Academy Awards.                                                          
Watching The Help I did not see physical assaults on Black domestics. The attacks were on their spirit. They were helpless to act on what they were feeling. They had to work. They had families to support. But through it all they held their heads high.

My grandmother worked as a domestic for years. She raised White children, and had little time for her own family when she came home late in the evening. My grandmother addressed White women and their husbands with "Mrs." and  "Mr." They called her by her first name. She answered them with yes-ma'am, no-ma'am, yes sir, no sir. They said yes and no to her. If they said something derogatory about Black people, she pretended she did not hear them. Or she would agree with them. My grandmother did this whenever she talked to White people. This behavior was prevalent in The Help.

I remember her working for an old drunkard. He was married, but he deemed it was his right to call my grandmother early in the morning or late at night on days she was not scheduled to work. He often demanded that she come to work on Sunday, no matter her plans to attend church, or spend time with her family. She called him "Mr. Crook".  That was really his real name. 

One night a young White woman she worked came to see her. I was there. I sat and listened to "Yes-ma'am" and "No-ma'am" until I thought I would burst. Unflattering words tickled my stomach, and they were traveling fast towards my mouth. Ignoring the White woman in the room, I asked my grandmother: "Why are you saying yes-ma'am and no-ma'am to her? She's calling you by your first name and you're calling her Mrs. She should show you the same respect!"

The woman, who  had her two young daughters with her, was shocked that a Black woman would address her in such a tone. She smiled nervously.  Turning to her I said, "You should be addressing my grandmother as Mrs." She did not know how to respond. She waited for my grandmother to protect her from me.

My grandmother responded by hurriedly shooing me out of her apartment, apologizing to her “boss lady” for my behavior. I think that is why I never allow a White person--man or woman-- to address me by my first name. If they introduce themselves with "I'm Mr. John Doe", or "Miss (Mrs) Jane Doe", I say “I'm Mrs. Banks.” I have watched expressions change when they are forced to understand that respect is a two way street.

Black critics who feel that The Help is  a Hollywood tale of fantasy should talk to their grandmothers, elderly aunts, uncles and elderly females in their communities who earned their living as The Help. Their stories did not make it to the big screen. During the time period The Help covered it did not matter if a Black woman or man had a college degree or PH.D. Their employment prospects were limited. They could teach at all Black schools and colleges, settle for minimum wage jobs. If women were good cooks they could cook for a sorority house on a university campus.

Black critics of this movie should read their history, and not whitewash the history of their mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers. The Association of Black Women Historians are so unhappy with the depiction of Black women in the movie, it was stated so in this open letter:

"On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism."

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, watching the movie in a theater, tweeted to Lawrence O’Donnell’s, host of the The Last Word on MSNBC :  “This is not a movie about the lives of Black women.” 

Making an appearance later on the show she said:  “It’s historical and deeply troubling to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film.” She concluded: “What kills me is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”

Davis is an accomplished TV and big screen actress who is hired to play roles of all kinds. She made a choice to play a domestic who was not free to make a choices about where she would work. Their "career" choices were limited to a scale of zero to zero. What Harris-Perry failed to mention is that Black woman in Hollywood are not getting the meaty roles White actresses are getting, no matter how attractive or good they are at their craft.

Summary: The stories in this movie were those of the domestics, and the ordeals they encountered in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of turmoil and civil unrest in America. These women had families to take of, including husbands who could not find work. Black women of that era were at the mercy of  White women who paid them less than a livable wage. They were subject to getting fired for no reason if they made demands for a decent wage, and reasonable hours. They lived with helplessness everyday, 24-7. When an employer controls your pocket book, he or she basically controls you.

The Help was not a Martin Luther King civil right movie. It was not a movie about slavery; the rape of black women and young girls. It was not a movie about Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights leader from Mississippi. The maids told the stories that needed to be told. It appears that telling their stories, seeing them published in a book, freed them. They had a sense of pride. But they still continued working for White families, riding a bus or walking to work. The multi-layered work of cleaning houses, cooking meals and raising White children has not changed.

The older “Yes-ma'am” and “No-ma'am” African America domestics of today still conduct themselves the same as the maids in The Help. I ride the city bus and sometimes I overhear their conversations. Ingrained lessons learned in their younger years are still stuck in their minds, and they can not break the habit of showing respect for the White women they work for. They are afraid to demand equal respect.

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