Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does This Movie Help Anything?

I hadn't heard about the book, but I've sure heard about the movie.

Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help, adapted into this summer's blockbuster of the same name by director Tate Taylor.

In case you're unfamiliar with this suddenly famous story, I'll summarize it briefly. The Help is a fictional account of two black maids in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi, ostensibly chronicled by a novice white journalist who herself grew up with black maids in her family's house.

Since I'd never heard of the book until last week, you can assume correctly that I've never read it. But I don't think I'll go to see the movie, either.

Not because it's a chick-flick disguised in historical drama, which, frankly, would be a good enough excuse for me anyway. But because I'm uneasy about what it presumes to say about our nation's legacy of racism, how it presumes to say it, and whose battleground stories have greater validity if it needs to be said.

I'm not the only person treading cautiously over this movie and its subject matter. In fact, discussions over the such concerns have appeared to eclipse evaluations of the movie's cinematic qualities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most movie critics scoff at the controversy and rave about The Help's script and acting. Or they treat the controversy as a matter of opinion, and since all opinions are equal these days, the value of the movie is in the eye of its beholder. Subjectivism, after all, is the opiate of the masses.

But what several observers to the craze over The Help have pointed out is not a discomfort with the actual portrayal of racism in 1960's Mississippi, but whether a legitimate story about racism can be told with such apparent sympathy by white folk.

And although some people may see that as splitting hairs when we're trying to move beyond race in the United States, isn't that still a real, honest question?

Sure, you can have black actors telling a white actor their stories, as in The Help, but what is the purpose in that, especially when we know the whole thing is fiction? If this were a real-life story, we'd probably not be having this conversation because facts command greater respect.

In addition, what amount of genuine pathos and first-person authenticity remains after a white author and a white director polish off Hollywood's latest for-profit movie on racial themes? This is not a documentary, yet even as fiction, the lines for the maids are all created by Stockett, a white woman, even if they're acted by black women. I'm not saying that 1960's Mississippi racism is a story that can only be told by black folk. But I think whites need to be extraordinarily sensitive to the inferences and inflections we may ascribe to people who've experienced a real phenomenon we'll never know.

After all, can white folk understand what segregation meant to blacks who went through it? Does drinking at the whites-only fountain give you an understanding of what it's like to drink from the "coloreds?" Does employing black women to tolerate your insufferably bourgeoisie attitudes make you an expert on what it's like to work for wages that are artificially depressed because of ones' skin color?

For a story which purports to offer a moral perspective of something as lopsidedly-perceived by its participants as racism, The Help pretends to possess far more authority to do so than it really has. The threat of such an over-extension on the people who watch it can be subtle, but no less pernicious as the story's claim of authority. Basically, this is the unanswered question: What is the extent to which white guilt gets a fresh summer whitewashing by The Help in the feel-good aura of an air-conditioned theater in 2011 suburbia?

I'm not suggesting that everybody who made this movie, read this book, and enjoys the story is a latent racist. I'm not even saying you shouldn't go see it for yourself.

I'm simply saying that for a work of fiction this compelling to be told, why did it take a white woman to come up with it? For my money, I think the real-life biographies in Same Kind of Different as Me provides a far more challenging perspective on race and class relations, since it's told by both a white guy and a black guy who've lived out the story in real-life.

Then, too, I think the older aspects of racism have begun to dissipate somewhat in the United States as strife between classes moves to center stage in our sociopolitical sphere. Pockets of 1960's Mississippi still exist, obviously - mostly in and around Mississippi, not coincidentally - but with a solid black middle class now, the struggle isn't so much equal rights as it is finding jobs and paying mortgages as corporations and our government keep tightening the screws on our workforce.

At least that's this under-employed white man's opinion.

Meanwhile, Americans need to encounter plot lines like The Help's with a greater dose of critiquing ability than the average movie ratings guide. We need to remember that the best grand, moral spectacles Hollywood can produce, like the epic Schindler's List and even Saving Private Ryan, are still based on perspectives that can be legitimately qualified by the realm of human experience. That's what makes them genuine narratives of a place and time that speak to us still today.

Not that The Help is totally without merit. It's just that fictional stories that make you feel good in the end don't necessarily amount to much when you have to leave the theater and walk back into real life.

In that regard, The Help may be more of a hindrance.

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