Facing The Terrible, Awful Truth

Posted on April 23, 2011

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There’s a real war of words and a very bitter debate raging about the current depiction of African Americans in film.

No, I’m not talking about the differing opinions on The Help. I’m referring to Tyler Perry’s verbal assault on Spike Lee, for something Lee said about Perry in 2009. You can read the story making the rounds here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/20/tyler-perry-spike-lee-go-to-hell_n_851344.html

 
Unfortunately, this type of bad blood will only take much needed attention and energy away from a movie which should draw scorn. And that’s Dreamwork’s blast into the past, The Help.

It’s important to note that regardless of any criticism coming from readers who thought the novel was offensive, a movie version of Kathryn Stockett’s polarizing book was inevitable. Because when there’s money to be made, nothing  and no one is sacred. That’s why when I started this blog I mentioned it would take time and patience for the truth to come out. So I’ll just add The Help to my list of  Classics We Now Question section of this blog, since the powers that be behind the movie insist on crowning this film “Beloved”.

If there’s any consolation, at least the whites and blacks both have a southern accent/dialect in the movie, something the book failed to do. More on the controversial “dialect-gate” of the novel can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/identity-crisis-in-the-help/

The Help Movie Poster - at least the maids get to wear make-up

But the terrible awful truth is, the ball was dropped on this one. People were caught sleeping.

And understand, I didn’t expect for say, someone like Cornel West or even Oprah to speak out about the falsehoods and down right nasty depictions of African Americans in the book. You see, by drawing attention to the novel, it was sure to put more money into Kathryn Stockett’s pocketbook. And it’s not fair to wonder what black celebrities plan on doing concerning an issue that affects us all. Sometimes you just have to jump into the fray.

 

So many African Americans chose not to read the novel and thus couldn’t comment on what was offensive on the pages, that the silence meant things could proceed un-opposed. That’s why I have grudging respect for how the black community responded to William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968. They offered a unified response, though it was emotionally charged and weighed bitterly on Styron until the day he died. In the end, Styron still won a Pulitzer for a novel that’s shocking even to this day with how much anger and self loathing he imagined Nat Turner possessed.

 

But regarding the novel and now the movie The Help, the terrible, awful truth is two-fold. Long story short, while Stockett stated at the books end that the line she truly prized was this one:

Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

And then proceeded to show exactly why she thought blacks and whites were “different” in the pages of her book, based on the trailer I saw that’s also the trap the movie falls into. The black characters twist their faces and scowl and crack jokes, with no real difference in 2011 than Mammy and Prissy behaved in the 1939 blockbuster Gone With The Wind. In failing to acknowledge the past, the producers and writers of the film were doomed instead to repeat it.

So intent on showing there was “affection” between blacks and whites, they manufacture it in the film, making scholar and author Mikki McElya’s words eerily prophetic:

 “So many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all.” —-Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 Micki McElya

Excerpt from an interview one of the producers gave (Chris Columbus) items in bold are my doing:

“Some people may have a misconceived notion that the movie is more of a history lesson and less about character and emotion. To try to fit that all in a 60 or 90-second trailer is difficult, but I think the trailer we finally agreed on, for the first glimpse of The Help, lets the audience see that the movie is not only a complex emotional human drama, but at the same time it’s very funny and a lot of fun. You want to give the audience a sense of tone, a sense of flavor in the film. The more historical complexities, the more emotional nuances of the film, you can only get a sense of when you see the picture. To us it’s to tread lightly on some of the social and political issues in the trailer.”

Link: http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Exclusive-Chris-Columbus-Explains-What-To-Expect-From-The-Help-And-How-Gwen-Stacy-Changed-His-Life-24265.html

I’m sorry, but exactly how much “fun” was The Holocaust? Or Apartheid? Or 9/11? Specifically, how much “fun” does he suppose it was for the families of these men:

A lynching in Marion, Indiana 1930. The ultimate price black men paid during segregation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or for this man:

the kick seen ’round the world

 

Perhaps instead of seeking to provide “fun” for the viewing audience, a bit more truth would be appropriate. But who am I kidding, this is Hollywood after all. The same institution that lauded Birth of A Nation as well as Al Jolson’s blackface performance of  “Mammy” And so it continues to this day.

In another excerpt from Chris Columbus. he speaks about director Tate Taylor, who grew up with The Help author Kathryn Stockett. This is Taylor’s directorial debut:

“No one else could have directed this movie. Not only has he lived with these people most of his life, some of the homes we were shooting in, these are friends of Tate’s. We realized that he had such a keen sense of the Southern world, something that none of us had really experienced. The film is filled with these little details, little insights, that only could have been done by someone who lived in that world. Tate added so much to the visual complexity of the movie as well.”

http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Exclusive-Chris-Columbus-Explains-What-To-Expect-From-The-Help-And-How-Gwen-Stacy-Changed-His-Life-24265.html

Yes, little insights like foolishly believing maids only came in one color. Or as the novel so indelicately put it:

The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told, you’ll never get hired. The blacker the better.  (Skeeter’s observations, Pg 257)

Which no doubt inspired this “blacker the better” gathering of maids for this scene from the movie:

So, exactly what did they think African Americans who happened to be light did to support themselves? Knit sweaters? Work in a candy shop? Stay hidden in the house or get shipped up North?

I don’t know when the stretching of the truth about the black culture and how we lived in the 60s south that Kathryn Stockett basically pulled from her ass will finally get publicly challenged, but at some point she’ll get more pointed questions than when the novel was first released. You can read more on where the novel when wrong here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/blunders-kathryn-stockett-made/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/the-help-is-a-parody/

 http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-help-useless-to-african-americans/

By the time the movie comes out, curiousity may finally drive “The Silent Minority” or those who didn’t read the book to finally do so. And this white washed version of  events during the height of the civil rights era may finally be revealed for what it really is.

While I didn’t see the loathsome character of Leroy Jackson in the list of  actors signed for the movie, or in the trailer,  this stereotypical black brute character is still in the novel, and probably still in the movie, though with less screen time. Yes, it appears some things were “fixed” for the film, just like the producers who wanted to put on a stage version of Edna Ferber’s novel Showboat. Because of protests they had to reinvent Joe, the character most modern audiences rave over because he sings the standard “Old Man River” but who was originally deemed  a “no-account” smelling of gin and who also sang the deleted lines “Niggers work all day on the Mississippi” with a chorus of other black males.

Link:

Stockett still has some explaining to do regarding the bias she showed in scolding and degrading the black male characters of the novel. Because the film can’t, and won’t redeem the novel.

“Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/ten-issues-that-tarnish-the-help/

Speaking of the males of The Help, what’s curiously missing in the trailer were the men (except the Reverend giving a sermon and African American males riding by in a truck while the maids walk to their buses). So I fully expect some type of special “twist” in the movie. As in making some of the white males heavies in the film, all except Johnny Foote and Carlton Phelan Senior. But it’s too little too late. TOO LITTLE, AND MUCH TOO LATE.

 

The Culture Wars  

Part of the reason the film was boxed in stems from sticking too closely on the novel. While Chris Columbus mentions this about director Tate Taylor “We realized that he had such a keen sense of the Southern world, something that none of us had really experienced.”

Being a white southern male, or a white southern female like Stockett, and being a black southern male, or a black southern female are not the same thing. But I’m reminded of what Stockett said in the same interview she claimed Medgar Evers was “bludgeoned” instead of shot:

Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

Excerpts:

“. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.”

3:42 into the 10 minute interview

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

Ah, what could have been. The admission the author made above was yet another blunder, just like she made with her initial depiction of the black culture in the novel. She leaned upon her own limited understanding and contact. There were some questionable and downright insensitive statements made in some of her interviews. And like the Medgar Evers error, it was ignored by major reviewers. For example:

Interview with Dan Latini of One Book

Excerpt:

“I am not Skeeter,” she said. “I’m not that brave. I never thought to question how things were.”

. . . This acceptance, Stockett said, was simply a product of her social climate growing up.

“I was taught that racial issues were considered tacky for a young lady to discuss,” she said. ‘I wasn’t even allowed to watch ‘The Jeffersons.’ “

http://www.courierpress.com/news/2010/nov/04/author-details-risky-story-of-race/

More excerpts from interviews with the author can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/a-list-of-interviews-with-kathryn-stockett/

While we can debate the merits of whether Skeeter was “brave” in the novel, I doubt if being unable to watch “The Jeffersons” would make someone write something like this for a novel on the races coming together:

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91) Aibileen

Keep in mind that Aibileen is supposed to be Stockett’s black heroine. Only perhaps Stockett didn’t realize Aibileen sounds like she’s bigoted against her own culture with the lines written for her. And this problem just doesn’t affect Aibileen, but Minny also.

And here’s the other heroine of the novel. And now the “golden girl” of the movie, Miss Skeeter:

Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and just called them both Mary (Skeeter, Pg 62)

It’s one thing to write a bigoted character. It’s quite another when an author plays omnipresent narrator and slips in what could be read as their own bias. That “so black I couldn’t tell them apart” is a line that’s still in use this very day, a tasteless joke regarding how black the skin color of some African Americans appear. The novel is full of such insults, jarring the reader, especially if one happens to be bi-racial, African American or of any other minority group into the realization that there’s an ugly, continuous message on how black culture is viewed, even by the main protag.

If at the end of the book, Skeeter had come to the realization that there no such thing as two African Americans being so black she couldn’t tell them apart, it would have made her a better leading lady. Unfortunately, Skeeter’s just started on the overshare. For as she observes about the very maids who will provide her way out of Jackson, Mississippi and other African Americans:

 I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. –  Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)

I sit across from Callie…she is wide and heavy and parts of her hang over the chair (Pg 259) – Skeeter

Pascagoula is described as tiny as a child, not five feet tall, and black as night (Pg 59) – Skeeter

Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums (Pg 65) – Skeeter

The foreman drags a red cloth across his black forehead, his lips, his neck.  (Pg 239) Skeeter   

 I am in the old Jackson kitchen with the maids, hot and sticky in their white uniforms. I feel the gentle bodies of white babies breathing against me. I feel what Constantine felt when Mother brought me home from the hospital and handed me over to her. I let their colored memories draw me out of my own miserable life (Pg 276) – Skeeter

You know, I never knew any memories I had were “colored”. It’s utterly fascinating to me that even memories can be segregated :)

It’s important to identify which medium is in question during a discussion. Since the movie isn’t officially out yet, I’m referring to the novel in this section of my post. Kathryn Stockett also created a lead character (Skeeter) who never publicly showed solidarity with the maids she worked with on the novel. Even though actual history showed African Americans were more likely to experience violence if they stepped out of place, Stockett insisted on pushing Skeeter’s bravery and how dangerous it was for Skeeter to meet with the maids, as if she didn’t recognize that just being black in Mississippi was a graver danger. The maids talk several times about the threats they could face, yet Stockett allows the reader to fully witness pages which detail Skeeter’s terror over Hilly finding her satchel, and when Skeeter is stopped by a police officer with “Negro activist” materials in her possession.

I no longer feel protected just because I’m white. I check over my shoulder often when I drive the truck to Aibileen’s. The cop who stopped me a few months back is my reminder: I am now a threat to every white family in town. Even though so many of the stories are good, celebrating the bonds of women and family, the bad stories will be the ones that catch the white people’s attention. They will make their blood boil and their fists swing. We must keep this a perfect secret. (Pg   Skeeter)

Whenever the author could have explored a deeper issue involving the black maids, just like switching from Minny’s domestic abuse here, Stockett switched up (or either an editor suggested it), instead delving into a whole ‘nother scene , like with a naked pervert attacking Celia’s house. This results in missing the mark yet again by focusing on what ails the white character of her novel, when presented with a perfect opportunity to explore her African American leads.

What winds up happening when the author does this,  is the black characters appear and vanish like props instead of being part of the book. They’re “admirable” simply for how much assistance they give Skeeter and how much fawning they do over the other characters Stockett has paired them with. Problem is, they diss their own community, much like Nat Turner did in William Styron’s novel.

Which brings up the question, why do some authors imply that African Americans would rather not be black? Because in the novel none of the white characters make disparaging remarks about their culture. While Skeeter frets over her looks, she never declares  “She was as white as me” or “Don’t drink milk or you’ll turn white”.

I mean, WTF was wrong with the editors on this book? Did anyone not see the self loathing the black characters profess, contrary to the publisher claiming that this is a “beautifully written” novel?

From the trailer, the same issues that plagued the novel appear to have been adopted by the film. I’m in a dilema here, not certain if I should even go deeper into what they’re liable to get slammed on. But I do know this, there ARE white women and men who get it. Just like there are African Americans who are probably wondering why anyone is still complaining.  So I have to give a shout out to all those sites and individuals that are at least open to exploring what African Americans think about the novel and the movie. It’s very much appreciated. And needed.

And to those who go a step beyond and join in the coversation, good for you. A special thanks to the blogger named Macon D, who was on this as early as 2009:

” . . . it seems implausible that someone like Skeeter, having been born and raised at that time in Mississippi, would be so completely outside of that norm, so different from other white people. And again, it does seem plausible that Stockett (and perhaps her editors) portrayed her that way so that white readers can more readily see themselves in Skeeter. In this sense, and others, this novel is thoroughly white-framed entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ostensibly liberal sentiments of white consumers.”

How freakin’ on point is that? Macon identifies himself as a white male by the way and his blog is required viewing.  His entire review on The Help can be found here:

http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2009/11/consume-racially-themed-entertainment.html

 I think my next post will be on the Cross-Over Bucks the film plans on generating from white and black audiences.

Richard Pryor explains the term “Crossover Bucks”

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