Maybe I should start this out with the fact that I have neither seen nor read “The Help”. I have no intentions of seeing it, although I have been told by my new colleagues that I would love it. I've had people come up to me and tell me that this book rocked their world. It makes me wonder how stable their worlds are. I'm embarrassed by my generation for not only churning this jackassery out, but swallowing it hook, line and sinker.
I think most people who will read this already know the main problem. It's a movie about the Civil Rights Movement that does not focus on the POCs who were the ones that had to fight for and receive their rights in a nation that, since it's conception, has boldly declared all humans equal. There have been no less than four amendments ratified to try and make that boast a reality and still we don't have equality. This is extremely obvious in the art we put out and if any of you have ever had the unpleasant experience of going through the archives of 4chan on the internet, in the postings and comments of whiny suburban teens and college freshmen.
From what I can tell, the plot of this movie is this: Liberal Southern girl comes home from college and her pluck gets her a job as a writer for her hometown paper. She has a friend who wants to make it a requirement that all households who employ maids/gardners/drivers/etc, have to build a separate toilet so that the workers no longer have to hold their bladders until they go home. (Why on earth someone would want to spend an exorbitant amount of money instead of allowing these people to touch the toilets they, themselves, have cleaned, is beyond me. This line of reasoning is not shocking to anyone who has bothered to look outside their eleventh grade Social Studies text book, but please don't look for any kind of logic behind the reasoning. It isn't there.) The heroine, Skeeter (while we're on historical inaccuracies, just look at this bobble head's name. No southern lady was nick named 'Skeeter' ever!), is disturbed by the fact that her friends would rather empty their wallets than just let the people who cook, clean and raise their children for them use their bathroom. She then convinces several maids to give her their opinions of the folks they work for so that she can shed light on their plight. The maids are reluctant at first, and rightly so. The American deep south was a hostile place for any person of color and they had more to lose than just their jobs. However, the women talk, the book gets published and everything works out in the end. Good ole Skeeter graciously went to bat for the downtrodden and they were forever grateful, genuflecting at every chance they got. Thank goodness she did, otherwise these workers would have never gotten themselves out of the misery in which they lived.
This movie has already been made. It's called “Mississippi Burnings” and it came out over twenty years ago. For those of you who haven't seen it, the movie stars Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman as the FBI agents that the US government sent down south to investigate the deaths of some white college kids who had been killed during the attempt to get southern POCs registered to vote. It's based off a true story. The government stepped in about a century too late (and then only because some rich white kids got killed) and this movie came about ten years after it should have been made. The story focuses on the FBI agents and the actors of color have at best, supporting parts. Like “The Help”, the focus of the movie is not on the people whose lives are at stake, but on the white people reacting to the situation around them.
If they were going to make this movie, they should have taken the “Newsies” approach. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this movie, it focuses on the boys who were news agents in the early 1900s and who unionized themselves after putting up with enough degradation from Pulitzer and are able to bargain for more rights. Like “The Help”, this is also based on a true story and is full of historical inaccuracies, however the movie centers around the people who are actually experiencing these problems. The newspaper writer who informs the public about their plight is a supporting character. When the shit hits the fan, like Skeeter, he gets to go back to his affluent lifestyle, leaving the newsies to fend for themselves. The remainder of the movie shows the boys teaming up with other child laborers to give them more power in society and paving the road to making child labor laws a reality.
“Newsies” is important because it shows the reality that nothing was given to these children (the majority of which were orphaned or abandoned and thus deemed unimportant to society) they had to take it. They had to shed blood, be humiliated and go hungry. This wasn't fully fleshed out in the film as it was made by Disney, but at least it had the right protagonist. The cornucopia of ethnicites, cultures and skin tones is underrepresented in the film, but this is not shocking.
On to the current movie. The main characters of this film should be Minnie and Aibileen. These are the two women of color whose lives are briefly detailed and who convince other women to talk to Skeeter (I'm still not over her name). The movie shows the long trek they make to work, the humiliation they have to suffer, the verbal abuse going on and the real threat of being jobless. Hilly, one of the white girls, holds the job over Minnie's head like the proverbial sword of Damocles, always hinting that at any moment it could drop. In Mississippi, being fired from a maid job was akin to being blacklisted. No one else wanted to hire someone who, by society's standards, was already stupid and lazy and since she was fired, that meant she was also uppity and lippy. Minnie would never work again and if she did, she could expect longer hours and about half the pay with no Worker's Right's Association that would hear her complaints.
Minnie and Aibileen do not appear to be fleshed out characters and are the genderless caricatures that are often seen when any woman of color in a movie is over the age of thirty five. Aibileen and Minnie get their inspiration to speak up not by reading or their own conclusions, but by listening to a man in church. Now, the Black Church has historically been the place where civil rights meetings have happened because it was the one place that POC could gather in large numbers without arousing suspicion, however, I'm sure that other factors went into making up their minds. It could have been wanting better for their daughters, it could have been the fact that enough was enough. It could have been anything, but since they were secondary characters, it was necessary to show them both having a personal experience at the same time. Again, I haven't seen the movie, so I apologize if I'm wrong. I'm confident, I'm not, however.
There is a line in the trailer “No maid in Jackson is ever going to tell you the truth” and this is the only part of the movie I feel is dead on. There is the stereotype of the sassy, quick talking maid who always tells her employers whats on her mind and how they should live their lives. No, they don't. They know what side their bread is buttered on and it isn't just their job they're clinging to, it's the food in their children's mouths and the clothes on their elderly parents' backs. It's keeping the Klan away from their door and the sheriff away from their husband. The law was not on their side and it still isn't. There is an invisible line between skin colors and cultures that cannot be crossed.
Now, the most disturbing part of this movie is not that Hollywood has made a mess of it, it's the reaction of so many white people. The girl who told me the movie rocked her world does not consider herself racist and I know for a fact that she was a straight A student in school, so she had to have at least heard about the Civil Rights movement, even if she thinks it didn't start until Rosa Parks wouldn't give up her seat. The problem was that she had no clue that POC's had to smile when they felt like crying. She still held preconceived notions about POCs. If a friend put hot sauce on their lunch at school it was because she felt they were genetically predisposed to enjoy it, not because Texas Pete can make any bland food taste better. If someone working on the group project was late, it wasn't that he couldn't find a babysitter, it was that he felt that was acceptable. When she had a close female friend of color, she treated that individual like an ambassador for her race, asking questions that she would never have considered asking her white friends. After reading “The Help”, she told me that she now questioned those friendships, because these friends apparently did not speak their minds. Why should they? She had already made up her mind about them.
A co-worker who grew up during this era still had no clue that racism wasn't just spraying college kids down with a high powered water hose and using German Shepherds to maul the holy hell out of tiny, unarmed young women. She didn't stop to think how degrading it was that maids in the South had to take care of and nurture children who would one day grow up and not see them as an authority figure in their lives, but as more of a treasured family pet. She claimed that her eyes were now opened.
There lies the problem. White people, please tell me it didn't take a book about some plucky white chick to open your eyes to racism. Racism isn't just lynching and the KKK. It's watching a young woman of color come into your store and not allowing her to try on clothes because you think she probably can't afford anything. It's looking at the young man on the bus with a back pack and thinking 'drug dealer!' not student. It's having your friend come up to you after class and telling you that the way the teacher spoke to her made her feel degraded because of the color of her skin and you telling her that the teacher didn't mean it 'that way'.
Even though it is a research book, a better one to turn into a movie would have been “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Given to the right writers and the right director, it would be a great movie to explain today's current brand of racism. The white friend won't understand why what the teacher said was upsetting, but the kids at the POC table in the cafeteria will. They may not like the same books and movies, but they understand each other on a deeper level. Like the Cosby Show spin-off tells us, it's a different world for someone who isn't white.
I would like all white people to admit that are or have been racist. When a POC tells you that something you've said or done hurts them on a core level, do not get all defensive and say “I'm sorry if what I said hurt your feelings!” Throw that 'if' out. What you said has obviously hurt their feelings and that preposition is your way of trying to pass the blame onto them for reacting that way. It makes the apology moot and does nothing in trying to bridge the gap. At some point in time you have probably said something offensive to your POC friends. You did not mean for it to be bad, but that is your own ignorance. Try to erase your ignorance and even if you can't pin point the exact date and time of each of your offenses, say to your POC friends and co-workers, “I've probably said something offensive to you at some point or ignored your feelings. I sincerely apologize.” You are never too old to change, nor is it too late for an apology.
Why does it take a book or a movie about a white woman to make us realize our mistakes?