Wednesday, August 17, 2011

No Help for The Help

I did not pay much attention to the move The Help initially; I was vaguely aware of it and largely uninterested in it because I have an intense dislike of movies where a heroic white "rescues" (in some shape or manner) a black person (often after the black person in question has served, affirmed, or rescued the white person in some way). The Blind Side is just one of the most recent of these, but Crash and Driving Miss Daisy fit here.  Even a movie I greatly enjoy, The Shawshank Redemption, has this unfortunate plot element in it.  devout and/or lazy.  I have no interest in narratives that portray any person, group, community, identity, or culture uniformly and simplisticly, but I hold a special distain for narratives that portray black people as magical, saintly, stupid, sassy, or criminal.

However, a growing body of critique has emerged around the movie.  One of the more compelling pieces is this letter from the Association of Black Women Historians detailing the historical inaccuracies, glosses, omissions, and context of the work.  I did not originally intend to see the movie out of apathy, and now I do not want to see the movie out of antagonism towards its plot and characters.  I will not financially support a project that fails to portray racism as it existed so that the audience can feel good about themselves and the characters.  Instead, given the idea by Black Youth Project (see link below), I am throwing my money behind Wench, a novel optioned for a movie written from the perspective of Black slave women by a Black woman.

One commenter at Black Youth Project suggested that any film highlighting racism in any form is a good thing: that raising conciousness about racism is, in and of itself, notable and worthwhile.  To this I say, "no."  Sugar-coating racism allows white people to continue to think that: 1) racism is a thing of the past; 2) racism is about a few hateful people, not about a system of oppression that white people still benefit from and perpetuate; 3) racism is about the past and those people, not about the present and me; 4)  the racism of the past wasn't "so bad"; 5) racism of the era (and of today, although less obvious to white people) didn't involve torture, murder, and rape; 6) defeating racism / being non- or anti-racist is about white folks not abusing (and sometimes being nice to) black people. (Based on the reviews I've read, it seems that this movie and book doesn't even follow this:  the protagonist uses the black people for her own benefit. But, she's "sweet" about it, so it's not really abusive.) I could go on.  Perhaps Dr. Melissa Harris Perry puts it best when she says, "“The Help reduces sexism, systematic violent racism, and labor exploitation to a catfight that can be won by cunning and spunk.”

The Help, based on the reviews, seems to fail to address the imbalance of power and privilege inherent to the protagonist's project.  As a budding qualitative researcher, I understand that it may be impossible to conduct research equitably: some form of power imbalance will always exists between researched and researcher, no matter how far the researcher goes to minimize explotation or to reciprocate.  Apparently the film doesn't bother to begin to question the ethics and consequences of a highly privileged (racially, economically, educationally) individual using a highly oppressed and marginalized individuals (in every way) for research or self-promotion.

I have said in person and on this blog that black women have played important roles in my life and have helped me out when they didn't need or have to help me.  I would not begin, however, to assume I could put myself in their place or come to a full understanding of their lives today, much less in the pre- and early civil rights era.  I may, at some future point, even conduct research with and for black women, but that would be filtered heavily - and acknowledged as such - through a highly privileged lens.  I would want to make sure that, as much as possible, I forgrounded their voices in the material and that the power dynamics surrounding them culturally were fully unpacked.  That research would also be conducted with liberatory aims and with the outcome of better serving black women in higher education.  Sadly, The Help seems to serve only white people.

Reviews that have informed my perspective on The Help:

Melissa Harris Perry's Review: "Ahistorical and deeply troubling": An interesting note to me is that Dr. Harris Perry notes that she could be labeled as a "killjoy" for critiquing a "feel-good" movie this way.  Sara Ahmed presented a wonderful lecture on this where she smartly observed that so often it is the one pointing out the problem, rather than the actual problem, who is pointed to as the problem (and labeled a "killjoy" or as "willful.").

Arts Critics Atlanta: "'The Help': A Feel Good Movie for White People"

Black Youth Project: "On Not Seeing 'The Help'"

This Amazon review of the novel

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