Monday, August 22, 2011

Those Southern Folks Sure Got It Maid

by Odienator

The Help has been kicking ass at the box office for 2 weeks, and in that time, I’ve read numerous articles defending its subject matter and its storytelling device. Some of these pieces have been extremely condescending, with the writer expressing shock—SHOCK!!!!—that some people (uppity Negroes and “liberal” Whites, this means you) would find the film either patronizing or more of the same “Black story told through White characters shenanigans” Hollywood is known to pull.  Equally condescending have been some of the conversations I’ve had, both online and in person, with people who love the film. I’ve been told that I don’t know how to watch a movie, that I went in looking for problems, and that I was just too Black to enjoy the movie. My personal favorite piece of wisdom came from a White colleague of mine, who looked me dead in my redbone face and told me that Kathryn Stockett, The Help’s author, knew more about the Black experience than I did. Granted, Black women had a hand in both our upbringings, but unlike Ms. Stockett’s influential mother figure, mine repeatedly made it clear that she was not my goddamn maid.

I don’t know anyone who read The Help, and I haven’t picked up a book on the South since I read The Secret Life Of Bees. Guys, if you want to see what the universal hand signal for vagina is, bring some chick lit on a plane. Even the flight attendants were throwing up the pussy dubs to mock me. Since I haven’t read The Help, I can only assume that, with the luxury of over 500 pages of reading time, Ms. Stockett presented her characters and their situation in a deeper fashion than 137 minutes of screen time could. After all, Miss Sofia just loved it to pieces and put it on her Book Club.

This was the original Abbey Road album cover.

Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that somehow keeps coming to my house despite the fact I cancelled it 5 years ago and moved twice within that time trying to outrun it, did a big write-up/interview section on The Help the week it came out. The piece, which featured the film’s three main actresses, Stockett and the film’s director, Tate Taylor, took pains to constantly remind me the movie had the Good Housekeeping Seal of African-American Approval. Tyler Perry loved it! The NAACP blessed it! A Black audience in Chicago danced the Hucklebuck after a screening! Pictures of Black Jesus were weeping at grandmother’s houses everywhere! (OK, Black Jesus and the Hucklebuck are slight exaggerations on my part.) But Stockett and Taylor discussing their influential maids in EW made my skin crawl, as both of them are my age and I unrealistically didn’t want to think that someone of privilege could have a Black maid raising them in the 70’s and 80’s. I suppose that’s my problem.

As I read the EW article, I thought to myself “they’re trying pretty damn hard to head off any backlash! This must be off-the-chart offensive! Now I have to go see it!” You know I just love a good movie Negro stereotype. Until I read that article, I was content to leave The Help out of my viewfinder, as it seemed like a run-of-the-mill extension of the White character tells Black story feel-good genre that includes Cry Freedom and Mississippi Burning. In truth, having the story told through a White device is actually more insulting to White people than to us. It’s as if Hollywood is saying “you can’t put yourselves in the shoes of an ethnic character, so here’s Kevin Kline! He’s JUST…LIKE…YOU!!!” At least Hollywood thinks minorities are smart enough to relate to the White characters.

I’m tired of these movies, and even more tired of getting into discussions with people who insult my intelligence about these movies’ intentions. But  EW’s coverage made me wonder if The Help were going to be Mammy Writer: The Movie. It was now a must-see.

Well, contrary to what some have said, The Help isn’t racist as hell. In fact, the only thing racist as hell in The Help is Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. More on her in a second, as she is my secret weapon, the character I’ll be throwing back at those who pretend this movie avoids the “congratulations, White people!” trappings of its genre. She brings the Paul Haggis Crash element to this film, except instead of having a magic racism-curing staircase as Crash had, The Help has a Noble Negro Water Closet.

The Help also has some intriguing things going for it, and its problems are not insurmountable, which makes it all the more aggravating and disappointing. It features three actresses knocking their stereotypical roles out of the park, and an original subplot I wanted to see more of than the main plot. The main plot (spoilers from here on in) is, in Cliffs Notes fashion: White grad from Ole Miss returns to Jackson, realizes her friends and her Mama are snooty racists, falls in love with a sexist, racist jock pig, writes a Peyton Place of a book using stories from the neighborhood maids, discovers the whereabouts of her own Mammy, gets a publishing job in NYC and gets the hell out of Mississippi, but not before  indirectly getting her lead maid storyteller fired. As the fired maid walks up the street toward the closing credits, like Richard Pryor does at the end of Which Way Is Up? (coincidentally, both characters have lost everything by the film’s end), Miss Thing is in New York City turning into Samantha Jones from Sex and the City.

That’s right, folks: The bad guy (I mean, girl) wins. Post-comeuppance, the villain returns to commit one final dastardly deed. Let’s talk about this bad girl, an over-the-top figurehead of bigotry played by the consistently horrible Bryce Dallas Howard. She is so extreme she makes the Grand Duke Wizard of the Klan look like Eldridge Cleaver by comparison. Howard is the Statue of Liberty of racism, a symbolic Incredible Hulk zapped with tons of gamma racism. If Howard's villainous Hilly Holbrook had a mustache, she'd twirl it wildly before ripping it off her face and eating it like Cookie Monster. In other words, she is completely unidentifiable as a real human being. Not even the gang of White men who chased me in Hamilton, Ohio, throwing bottles and slurs at me a few years ago were as racist as Hilly Holbrook. In keeping her a caricature, she belongs in the same cardboard box as the characters from Crash; she makes you feel good for not being that racist. 

"I'm a witch! I'm not you!"

The Help is confused as to whether Holbrook is a comic foil or a serious threat. She’s the butt of a seemingly endless joke about her eating a pie made of Pure T. Shit, but she manages to get people arrested and destroy their livelihoods with false allegations of theft. Hilly gets so many maids dismissed from jobs in Jackson that she should have been crowned Miss FireCracker 1963. She also presents a problem for us as she relates to Skeeter (Emma Stone), the main character of The Help. Hilly and her bitchy friends didn’t turn this way overnight, so Skeeter’s idea to write the book seems more an act of self-promotion than a means of getting some justice. As nasty as Hilly gets, Skeeter still hangs out with her, and even falls for the guy with whom Hilly hooks her up. That last item blows away any notion that The Help is not meant to be seen through Skeeter; this courtship is boring, eats up time, and is a useless way to keep the story on Skeeter rather than the more interesting maids. 

Unlike some of the film’s detractors, I don’t have a problem with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer playing maids. Black people were maids in the 60’s, and many of them raised White children just like the Mammys of yore. Plus both actresses are fantastic, with Davis speaking volumes with her eyes and a stone face, and the comedic Spencer knowing where the minstrelsy line is and slyly threatening to go over it. Davis’ Aibileen is a character that deserved to be the lead of this movie. She narrates the film, but it is not her story. Yet Davis at times threatens to steal it from its segregated gaze.  Early in the film, Skeeter asks her if she wanted to be something other than a maid. Davis gives her a “bitch, are you fucking crazy?” look (watch her eyes) before answering yes.

Skeeter’s follow-up question “how does it feel to raise White children while your children are at home being raised by someone else?” is left unanswered. To Aibileen’s story, it’s very valid, but to Skeeter’s, it’s just another interview question. I wanted to hear the answer to that question, but The Help doesn’t. Aibileen does note that the White kids who loved their maids as children eventually shat on them when they became adult members of society. This is a plotline worth fleshing out and explaining. Even the maid who is integral to Skeeter’s story, her beloved, missing Constantine, is given no back story besides appearing  as Super Mammy in flashback.  My depression at the misuse of the great Cicely Tyson was jolted when Tyson looked at the camera with a mix of devastation, anger and hurt after being fired. “Damn, Cicely!” I said to myself. In that moment, she told me so much more than The Help had time to explore.

The other actress who does wonders with her stereotypical role is The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain.  The movie pairs Chastain’s lower class Miss Celia with Spencer’s Sassy maid Minny after Hilly fires Minny for using the White house toilet instead of her Colored outside one during a tornado.  I’m surprised Hilly didn’t appear in a window flying on a broom before handing Minny her pink slip. Due to Hilly’s influence, Minny can’t get another job anywhere but at Miss Celia’s. Miss Celia is hated by Hilly, and by extension, the women in Jackson, because, as Minny notes “they think you White trash, Miss Celia.” Miss C. has the ill nana, which led her to marry Hilly’s ex-boyfriend. Minny becomes something of a Magical Negro by way of the Food Network; she helps Miss Celia cook on the down low so Miss Celia can impress her man. What I liked about this subplot was the way it comically handled the class issue. Both Miss Celia and Minny are the town outcasts, but the film doesn’t try to compare Miss Celia’s ignorance of the rules to Minny’s skin color-related troubles. Instead, Minny is constantly correcting Miss Celia, whose bubble-headed naïveté leads her to all manner of societal faux pas.

I liked Spencer and Chastain’s interplay so much that I was willing to forgive how their storyline is resolved: Minny’s happily ever after involves a lifelong membership as Miss Celia’s maid. Still, I could have watched an entire movie of their interactions. I hadn’t seen a relationship like this before in a movie, with Minny almost having to teach Miss Celia how to treat her like a maid. This is ripe with Skin Game-like comic and satirical potential. When I mentioned my desire to see the Minny and Miss Celia movie instead of The Skeeter Story, I was told that I should go watch 48 Hrs. You can figure that one out for yourselves.

The Help is going to be a huge hit, which means Hollywood will make 6 million more maid movies. Its influence is already being felt in the real world: I have seen three different stories about Southern White women looking for, and being reunited with, the maids who helped raise them. Everybody cried, syrupy music played, and the newscaster narrated the story in hushed tones. I wondered if a) I’d see a story where the maid went looking for her ward and b) if I’d see the found maid slap the Calhoun Shit out of the ward looking for her, saying “you ungrateful heffa, where the hell were you all these years? You’re just looking for me NOW?!” Neither a nor b was going to happen on my TV.

I sat next to an older Black couple at my screening of The Help. The theater was nearly full, with a mixed crowd of old and young, male and female, Black and White. Crammed and uncomfortable, slumping in the second row, the couple stared at the screen with rapt attention. I detected a slight Southern accent from the woman, who occasionally muttered something brief to her husband. I guesstimated they were my parents’ ages, not just from their appearance but from their manner of speech. They sounded like an old married couple, with her comments met simply by her husband’s “um-hmms and yeah’s.” Occasionally, they both would laugh at something comedic, and at one crucial point, the woman gasped along with much of the audience. I heard the faint rustling of a pack of Kleenex during a moment of high drama, with the husband making a sympathetic noise of support. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to who’s sitting next to me at the theater, but whenever I’m that close to the screen, I have to look around on occasion to keep my neck from becoming stiff.

As the credits rolled, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. The couple next to me did too. Immediately, I wanted to talk to them, to ask them why they felt this film warranted ovation. They were older than me, and their opinions on the period would carry much more knowledgeable weight than mine. How did they feel, and what light could they shed for me? I was momentarily distracted by the person on my right, a teary-eyed teenage girl who suddenly stood up to continue her applause. She looked at me in surprise, her face asking “why aren’t you clapping?” I found myself contemplating the weird look she gave me, sort of a “What the fuck is wrong with you?!” look. When I shook myself from my distraction, I turned back to my desired task: a discussion with my elders.

Unfortunately, they were gone.

It was a fitting end, for like the film itself, I wanted to see The Help through the eyes of the people who would provide me a different perspective than Hollywood wishes to entertain.

 "Hi, Hollywood wants to make The Help II: Electric Boogaloo. I'll need to order more Negroes. Oh, and some Kung Pao Chicken! Thanks!"


Ali Arikan said...

Excellent, excellent piece. And funny as hell. Pissed myself at the Hucklebuck line. Almost literally.

Kurtis O said...

Easily my favorite piece written about this movie, the overblown discussion of which I just can't seem to escape. GREAT read.

Seeker said...

Cleverly written, but pull your head out of your ass and read the book.

The book was written with great depth and character -- reminds me of Mark Twain, when he was writing the really GOOD stuff.

The movie was wonderful, far better than I predicted. The difficulty was going to somehow transfer the depth and magic of the writing, into a movie.

The writing was so good, so perfect, it hurt your teeth.

I suggest you sit your pompus ass down and read it, or listen to it on audio.

Naomi Johnson said...

Best write up I've read on this film. Thanks for the laughs and for the insight.

Anonymous said...

Excellent critique; I may disagree in some of the judgement calls about whether certain things worked or not, and there's room for discussion around the edges, but you advance very good points without pretending that the film is an absolute failure. That's more than I can say for a lot of the reviews I've seen.

I suppose I could understand the vitriol people are pouring out over a flawed attempt with good intentions if they were up in arms about every other film that comes out with even bigger problems. When I see a reviewer laugh off implications of racism in The Lord of the Rings, it feels like mere iconoclasm when they get bent out of shape over The Help. Thanks for providing carefully reasoned criticism that doesn't just paint everything in black and white -- so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece, but you repeatedly made one error -- Octavia Spencer's character is Minny Jackson, not Milly.

Dana Stabenow said...

Movie isn't in my town yet, but I have read the book. Skeeter is easily the most tedious character, flat, whiny, and not very bright. The film I would have liked to have seen is the maid writing her own damn book.

odienator said...

Anonymous, good catch on the name. Thank you. Fixed now.

odienator said...

Seeker, I suggest you realize this is a review of the MOVIE, not the book. I further suggest that you don't concern yourself with what's up my ass. It's a slippery slope you are traveling down. Mind your damn business!

As for reading the book: Let me be polite in my response:

FUCK NO!!!! Life is too short.

But thank you for saying the piece was cleverly written. You obviously have good taste.

odienator said...

drmathochist, thanks for your comment. I don't think the film is a complete failure. There are several things I enjoyed about it, and I regret not mentioning Sissy Spacek's amusing turn as the mother of Supreme Racist Lady #1. Spacek is fun.

I've read pieces that refused to acknowledge when the film worked, and I didn't want to do that here. Good work is worth mentioning, no matter how one may feel about the film's message or its methodology.

I'm dying to hear my Mom's take on the movie, which she's seeing this weekend.

Susie Moloney said...

This is my favourite review of both the book AND the movie. You nailed how I felt, too. Ha ha ha. Damn you can write. I'm subscribing to this blog.

Unknown said...

Reminds me of the Last King of Scotland. I just couldn't get over the 'Scottish Doctor' bit - typical Hollywood insult to my intelligence/humanity, that I couldn't relate to an African story just about Africans, I needed to have a White Guy in the story in order to understand (or even apparently to watch it). Conversely, that is what is so incredible about Hotel Rawanda - no White Guy needed to tell an incredible story. You nailed it Odienator!

Butterfly McQueen said...

The most frustrating thing about the response to this movie (and the book before it) was how many people reacted to it like it was the fifth Gospel in terms of race relations. Shouldn't we be past this by now? This movie might have been radical if released thirty or forty years ago, but now it seems a bit diluted. It also reminded me of when MILK came out (so to speak) and how everyone was getting worked up about it and there were people for whom this was the first time they'd ever really thought about the issues or heard of the ideas involved.

NelsonStJames said...

SEEKER, try not to sound so much like an opinionated idiot. Films stand on their own. I should never have to resort to reading a book to realize how far from the mark a film adaptation was, or to make something clear that obstuse in the movie. In this case going to the book doesn't mean much because in my opinion the book is not that great anyway, if anything the movie made some things that were in the book more palatable. Still none of that has much to do with the fact that this is the type of story that Hollywood keeps coming back to when it wants to tell any type of black-centric story. I mean white people already gripe about how Hollywood tries to showhorn blacks and other minorities into films where they stick out like a sore thumb by their presence, yet those same people have no problem that movies about black people seemingly always find a way to have a white viewpoint character and the blacks end up taking a back seat. (Last King of Scotland, Amistad, American Gangster, The Cotton Club, Glory, etc.)
And Finally everybody that is not entertained by the plablum Hollywood thinks they should like has their "Head up their ass" unlike certain people who conveniently have their head stuck in the sand.