Whose “Voice” will you hear in The Help movie?

Posted on June 24, 2011

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So I wondered, is The Help (the movie) really giving African Americans a “voice?” and whose “voice” is it?

Excuse me while I quote my mom here:

“You must think my head screws off and on”

The movie got bankrolled because somebody figured it would make money. And it will.

But the whole “Giving black women a voice” spin would have played a lot better if Skeeter were omitted and Aibileen got all the maids together so that the movie, which is called THE HELP truly reflected a story about the domestics, and not Skeeter as their great white hope.

Skeeter, played by Emma Stone in the movie version of The Help

Let’s face it though, no Skeeter, no movie. No Skeeter, no book deal.

Because the “selling” point to get the movie done was SKEETER, not the maids.

Interview by Motoko Rich of  The New York Times

Excerpt:

She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.” 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

 

 

Now, I have no problem going to a movie and identifying with a lead who’s not a minority. I’ve done it all my life. 

But apparently those mysterious powerbrokers investing in films still figure who they market to probably won’t. Through the years, there’s been a rumor floating about that moviegoers won’t be able to identify with a minority in the lead of a drama, at least not enough to turn a tidy profit.

But that’s the excuse we’ve been given for decades, and since it’s never really been addressed by the movers and shakers in Hollywood and publishing, it may remain this way for years to come. You know what I’m talking about. That for whatever reason, white audiences won’t turn out in vast numbers to view a drama about a black protagonist(s). But there have been films, successful ones proving that “theory” wrong.

So what happens when a “sensational bestseller” gets the green light, and becomes a major motion picture even though within its pages there are clear stereotypes and distortions regarding African Americans?

Apparently nothing but big things, especially since a novel like The Help enchanted many readers, both black and white. In truth, the premise was good. It’s the execution that was a disappointment for me.

Critics, in particular black critics are supposed to just grin and bear it. Just like during segregation. It’s not right, but it’s okay. Without enough “voices” of dissent then its viewed as silence, or affirmation that the way is clear for more movies that remake history into “entertaining” films, as no subject is sacred or need be accurate.

Today minorities, and not just African Americans are forced to accept the “voice” given to them because there are no “voices” unified in dissent regarding distortions in our image. One thing The Help is a great example of, is how history can repeat. Because just like in 1933 when Imitation of Life caused a split in the black community regarding the character of Delilah, who was a docile depiction meant to encourage laughter and sympathy, so too does the character of Aibileen, and to a lesser extent Minny.  With no input from actual African Americans and no research on the black culture by Kathryn Stockett,  we are now being “told” to accept what will hit the screen because it will represent us with “dignity”.

Only this was the same rationale used to promote the novel.

A novel that contains a main black character (Aibileen) who’s  filled with such confused self-loathing about her own skin color, it’s no wonder Stockett used her to spew out some of the most vile jokes in the novel. “Don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” and “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

Minny’s no better, speaking in ignorance about the civil rights movement, again for a laugh, “I told Shirley Boon her ass was too big to fit on a stool at Woolworth’s” though she’s supposed to be an abused woman. Yet the “sassy” maid stereotype wins out, as Stockett enlists Minny to fill the role of comic relief in the novel, which is also certain to make it into the film. The tagline for the movie could read See Mammy from Gone With The Wind and Delilah from Imitation of Life in the same movie! Because these are the two “voices” that were dusted off and resurrected for current readers and moviegoers.

Scene from the film The Help. Black folk craning their necks (Yule May) when speaking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lets get some shots of those black people singing in church, a routine example of black "Voice"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Group Squeal of surprise as the movie, like the book tries to show how "different" blacks and whites behave

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

No "squeals" for Skeeter's entrance as all the "blacker the better" maids meet in one room. The film attempts to duplicate Stockett's words with heavy handed film shots

 
 
 
I fully expect the movie of Stockett’s novel to be a hit. The film, like the book will weave in the story of the maids, but not so much that it disturbs viewers interested in Skeeter’s budding love affair with Stuart. Or Skeeter’s re-vamped character who appears to have a confrontation with Hilly, a wimpy bust in the novel but perhaps rightfully given a bigger scene in the film.
 
The storyline with the maids should produce the expected pity for their plight. But you probably won’t see any scenes of Aibileen going on a date, (as in the novel, Aibileen had sworn off all men in order to be a better Mammy) as romance for a black character isn’t the norm in most movies.
 
Though the film, like the novel is titled The Help, and here’s a perfect chance to show moviegoers a rarely seen, balanced lifestyle from a black character, it appears we haven’t progressed far enough when a black character and a white character share the screen. So like the book, the movie will simply place the maids where they belong. Children. Kitchen. Church. I’ve got a post up about how Aibileen and Minny were robbed in the novel here. I don’t need to go to the film to see the same scenario.
 
I always like to revisit the films of the past, especially those which dealt with race, films that also prided themselves on giving Africans and African Americans a “voice” Take Imitation of Life for instance:
 
 

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, example of black character given a "voice" by liberal author and Hollywood

 
Jeez Louise, in 2011 you’ll have competition for the greatest  screen role (playing a maid), curtesy of The Help
 
 

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life. What a "voice!"

 
 

Delilah rubs Bea's feet in Imitation of Life, 1934 movie

 
 
The assertion of The Help movie giving blacks a “voice” is in itself ironic, since dissent over the novel was soundly ignored or dismissed without due consideration or discussion (Items in bold are my doing). 

 

Reviewer Jesse Kornbluth, Editor of HeadButler.com. Cross posted in the Huffington Post

Excerpt:

Smartest of all, Stockett has downplayed the horror that was Mississippi in 1962. Back then, it wasn’t just Medgar Evans shot in the back outside his home, it was the leaders of state government defining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as ”Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons and Possums.” And more, and worse.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/is-the-help-more-than-a-s_b_333448.html

**Not to be picky, but the reviewer lists Medgar Evers as Medgar Evans, with the error still uncorrected after over a year, since the review was originally posted on 10/2009**

 

 Thankfully, in a second post on the book Kornbluth at least states:

“My review, I now see, is wrong about one thing — “The black Southern dialect will someday seem mawkish; today, it still sounds right,” I wrote in my review — and I am indebted to “Concerned” for the correction.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/an-african-american-woman_b_653983.html

At least he went in depth and was direct about his rationale (and that of others):

1) The book was written for whites.
2) She took a huge chance writing “black” talk? Not really. Blacks were not likely readers.
3) She (kinda) got those white bitches right.
4) Her readers cared less about the blacks (except as victims to pity) than about women (kinda) like themselves.

So…..you nailed it — that is, for smart African-American readers like you.
BUT…..this book did a WORLD OF GOOD.
Because a lot of women who read it had to confront/overcome their own prejudices.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/an-african-american-woman_b_653983.html

But what is up with the “you nailed it — that is, for smart African-American readers like you.”

 

 

Review by Sybil Steinberg from The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com

Excerpt:

Aibileen and Minny share the narration with Skeeter, and one of Stockett’s accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue. She unsparingly delineates the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/31/AR2009033103552.html

 

Really? I guess Ms. Steinberg missed the very offensive “spoilt cootchie” dialogue, and Aibileen’s almost undecipherable dialect. I also have to say, that I don’t think many of these reviewers realize they’re typecasting African Americans by claiming Stockett recreates our “vernacular” when we don’t all speak the same. Steinberg, like other reviewers seems content to believe southern whites in novel don’t need to read like the geographical region they reside in, but blacks do.

Both reviewers miss the obvious. That the book contains offensive slurs against African Americans being passed off as amusing insights into the black lifestyle during the 1960s.

 

 

From Bookmarks Magazine

“In writing about such a troubled time in American history, Southern-born Stockett takes a big risk, one that paid off enormously. Critics praised Stockett’s skillful depiction of the ironies and hypocrisies that defined an era, without resorting to depressing or controversial clichés. Rather, Stockett focuses on the fascinating and complex relationships between vastly different members of a household. Additionally, reviewers loved (and loathed) Stockett’s three-dimensional characters—and cheered and hissed their favorites to the end. Several critics questioned Stockett’s decision to use a heavy dialect solely for the black characters. Overall, however, The Help is a compassionate, original story, as well as an excellent choice for book groups.”

Compassionate and original? Maybe to some who haven’t read Showboat, Imitation of Life, and a few other novels that have an author “Writing while black”.  The problems within the pages of The Help make the dialect controversy just the tip of the iceberg.

 

And when a lone black maid took exception to Stockett using her likeness for the character of Aibileen Clark (I’m referring to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Ablene Cooper, by someone close to Stockett) many supporters of the novel responded either by stating Cooper was only after money, or that since Aibileen was an “admirable” character, the lawsuit was a shock and had no merit. Thankfully there were additional voices who agreed Cooper needed to voice her displeasure, especially if she truly does recognize snipets of her own life in the book.

That’s one of the reasons #100voicesrespondtothehelp on Twitter, July 16 was proposed. From the messages coming my way, looks like readers from across the globe want in. A big thanks to all.

And just like the “female empowerment” line is being used for PR, there’s a  belief that the movie will be a tribute of sorts to African American domestics who’ll finally get their “due” with dignity.

While I highly doubt that, I have no problem agreeing that the movie will be a tribute.

But it won’t be aimed at African Americans. It will be for the southern way of life. A tap on the wrist, to say “how dare you, but it’s okay, because through the fictional character of Skeeter, I can imagine how I WOULD have behaved.”

The problem with re-making the south into a quieter, gentler place with a spunky heroine like Skeeter is that its simply wish-fulfillment.

Segregation went on for over one hundred years. It didn’t just begin and end during the 60s.

And like The Holocaust, there was hardly any “beauty” to be found.

Imagine a scene like this where a Nazi giggles and affectionately hugs a Jewish prisoner:

Celia gives Minny a hug, which is supposed to make moviegoers chuckle and go "Awww"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This whole denial on the part of the film’s producers, the publisher, some readers and even Kathryn Stockett regarding just how bad segregation really was and how it impacted on our nation just doesn’t fly with me.

It’s revisionist history on the very worst level. That somehow if you read and didn’t love the book, you’ll enjoy the movie because things have been changed.

Guess someone noticed Stockett’s offensive ideology about African Americans that made its way into the book, without apparently her publishing house spotting it.

I know why I’m boycotting the movie. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I seriously doubt if my ticket money will put a dent in the millions the film is anticipating at the box office.

But when the film comes out on August 12th, it’s not my “voice” or the voice of any African American that you’ll hear on screen. Like past films, The Help is a novel from a self professed “liberal” author, one who had every right to create her book, but failed to filter out demeaning bias of her black characters.

And yes, something is better than nothing. That’s part of the rationale being presented to those who’ve read the novel but were offended with Stockett’s depiction of the maids. That the book is the book, and movie is different.  But the book is still being sold as is, and the film promos clearly state:

Based on the sensational-LY FLAWED bestseller

This is 2011, not 1961. Should “something” be accepted, simply because African Americans, like other minorities are not on the screen as often as we’d like? Thus a movie dealing with the occupations of many of our forebearers, even if based on a flawed novel, well, should it be uniformly greeted with rousing celebration, instead of a critical mind?

Only time will tell.

In the meanwhile, let’s take a little trip down memory lane regarding the various “Voices” that were supposed to be a fair representation of African Americans.

 

LIKE THIS: 

One of the most "Beloved" entertainers, Al Jolson doing a parody of a black male

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinky Promo poster, starring Ethel Waters and Jean Crain. The nurturing domestic was a popular character during segregation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mammy Two shoes caricature from Tom and Jerry cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delilah from Imitation of Life, played by Louise Beavers posing in the kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Full circle:

in 2011, The Help returns black women (and black actresses) to the kitchen, reportedly though, "with dignity"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be continued . . . 

 
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