Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Help

seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream NY

And now, five things I thought about while watching The Help:

1. The abundance of black nannies in New York. One can't walk to the end of a block in Manhattan without seeing black nannies pushing white babies around in strollers somewhere. Many of them are Caribbean. They tend to congregate at the same places - the playground, the supermarket, the school - in upscale neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. 

Occasionally I've wondered why it is that the only nannies you see here are black ones. They're so ubiquitous that after awhile they almost seem to blend together into the same face. All other things being equal, one would think that there'd be a little more diversity in this field, especially in a city like New York. As it is though, it's nearly impossible to avoid thinking of race and class issues when one sees them so often...

...but those little white children getting pushed around in their strollers don't think about that stuff. They don't understand it. All they know is that this woman who's not Mommy is there for them when Mommy's not (or Daddy, for that matter). What would it be like growing up under such circumstances? And how does learning about race change things? After all, sooner or later those kids will grow up and learn about the way the world operates. Viola Davis' character (I think) even talks about that in the movie - how as a black maid, she cares for these white kids as if they were her own and then they grow up and become as insensitive and ignorant as their parents.

2. Kathryn Stockett. As I watched The Help, I tried to put myself in her shoes. Stockett, the white novelist whose debut book was the basis for the movie, drew heavily upon her own life in order to make this fictional story. Growing up in Mississippi (with Help director Tate Taylor), being raised by a black maid; this was her world as she lived it, and it included poor black women serving as maids to affluent white families, including her own.

In writing about that world, and in attempting to capture the perspective of those black women, she couldn't have possibly known how successful she would become. She's taken some heat from people who don't think she has a right to presume what the black experience is like, but a certain amount of empathy is necessary to be a fiction writer. Should she be faulted for trying to build a bridge? I don't think so. She has said that it wasn't until much later in life, long after her maid died, that she finally began to ponder what her maid's life was like, and that this was an impetus towards writing The Help. Was that wrong? I don't see how. Even if it led her down a different path than writing a book, I believe thinking about it was bound to make her a better person.

3. Black roles throughout Hollywood history. I can't help but brace myself a little whenever I see a black maid or a cook or a porter or a butler in old movies, wondering how they'll act. Will they be "comedy relief?" Will they be overly meek and obsequious? Will they simply not matter? Sometimes I think it would've been better if they weren't in those movies at all than to be so unimportant or to be such caricatures. In recent years, it's become harder to find black roles in mainstream dramas or comedies. (Did Bridesmaids really have to star six white chicks? Did The Change-Up have to star two of the blandest, most interchangeable, white-bread actors ever?)

Davis has said that she got called out by people who thought she could do better than playing a maid, but the truth is that Aibileen is far from just another maid role. The whole point of The Help is to give a voice to those domestic servants that hover around the fringes of affluent white society. Aibileen is the film's narrator; hers is the first and last face we see. That's significant. I saw my mother in Davis, in Octavia Spencer, in all the maids in the movie. I'm probably not the only one.

4. Public opinion. I was on the verge of not seeing The Help. So much has been written about this movie, from so many angles. Critically, the consensus seems to think it's a softball down the middle, entertaining but without much depth. And I can't argue that too much. If Bryce Dallas Howard's character had a mustache, it would've been twirled vigorously. Emma Stone couldn't hold on to her Southern accent for longer than a minute, it seemed. (Has anyone noticed that both the old Gwen Stacy and the new Gwen Stacy are in this movie?) I would've liked to have gotten more of the black male perspective than the tiny bit we got. And yeah, the whole movie does easily fall into the "white person helps uplift downtrodden black folks" cliche that we see far too much of.

I had to see it for myself, though. The subject matter means too much for me to be so easily swayed by critics. Between the Association of Black Women Historians on one side and Medgar Evers' widow on the other, it was difficult to get a handle on how I "should" feel about it. Still, I came to the movie with an open mind, and you know what? I enjoyed it. I laughed at the funny parts, gasped in shock at the dramatic parts, and I might've had a little bit of ocular leakage at the end.

5. The Oscars. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say right now that Davis will win Supporting Actress.

I saw The Help with a mostly older-skewing crowd, black and white (but one with too many cellphones going off!). Afterwards, when I was in the bathroom, this old white guy started talking with me about the movie and how much he enjoyed it. He said he was 82, and that he can remember when he made a bus trip to Baltimore when he was fifteen. He had taken a seat in the back, but was told by the driver, that no, he shouldn't sit there because the back was for black folks. It was the first time he had seen racism up close and he said it was the worst thing he ever saw. I promptly told him that if that was the worst thing he saw in 82 years of life then he's had it easy. (I suppose he was probably speaking hyperbolically.) Then he said how good it was that that was over with - and it's possible he was only talking about segregated seating and not racism in general, but that's not how I interpreted it because I said no, it's not over.

Building bridges. Getting different people to sit down and talk to each other. Making an effort to listen and understand. Both the book and the movie The Help have done that and continue to do that. That's gotta be worth something.


'The Help' and black literature


  1. I found this article fascinating Rich. Good points and well thought out.

    I must point out though that Maya Rudolph is of mixed race and identifies with both sides, especially because of who her parents happen to be. Although that means in Bridesmaids she should've had at least one friend of color instead of some super super white girls, so nevermind.

  2. The reason that you only notice black nannies may be because of the race discrepancy between adult and child. If you saw a white woman with a white child or a black woman with a black child, you would just assume it was mother and child not nanny and child. Just a thought.

    Wonderful review. I do brace myself sometimes when I see black characters in old movies. I do the same with other minorities like Hispanics and Asians. Will they just be another stereotype or caricature or will this one be interesting?

  3. Good point about nannies, although I suspect here in NYC, at least, the majority of them are still black.

  4. Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. Good Review Rich!

  5. Great post, Rich! I haven't seen THE HELP but have been reading a lot about it, for many of the reasons you mentioned. I'm pretty sick of the whole "heroic white people helping disenfranchised black people" thing, so I was turned off to it initially, but it has a good cast and interesting setting. Might catch it on dvd but not in the theater.

    I'll be happy if Viola Davis wins something though! She's very talented and I can only assume she's good in this!


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