Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Help" Costs Too Damn Much, or Notes on an Intra-Master Discussion

I just saw "The Help" and will probably read the book. While I agree with some that it is very important that people know the stories of how black women domestic workers experienced what I would call an updated form of slavery, there are a few things I noticed that lead me to believe that this film, despite being marketed something relevant to the dilemmas of black and white women alike, is really engaged primarily with the ethical dilemmas of white women. It is a discussion among slave masters about how to, in Fanon's words, "be nice to the niggers."

This film chooses to introduce the stories of the black women domestics through the medium of a white woman's story of redemption. In that regard it is a lot like "Cry Freedom," in which another white director shared what almost all black South Africans already knew about apartheid through the story of a white liberal man's suffering, dilemmas, risk, and transformation, and even "Fried Green Tomatoes," which, like "The Help," is also about a young white liberal woman who is something of a misfit in her segregated landscape but who graciously uses her privilege to protect the grateful groups of black people who would otherwise be without an advocate whose voice matters in the storyline.

Questions of Oscar-worthiness aside, there is a cost to sharing black narratives in this way, i.e., by channeling narrative of black suffering through the filters of the very people who cause the suffering. The devil is in the details that are included and those that are excluded.

For instance, there was nothing at all in the film about the relatively routine experience of sexual violence from white males (boys and men) that black women domestics experienced. (There is, however, the hint of domestic violence from black men--of course.) I hope the book mentions something of that glaringly obvious omission. Have you read it? Does it?

Also, we should note that the losses that the white women experience are ones that we actually see. In film and theater, things that we see (as opposed to things we are told about) tend to have a stronger effect on us, so when the film shows us the white women's suffering but doesn't show us the black women's suffering, we can tell for whom the film is really asking us to feel. There is that cost again. We hear in ample detail about the suffering the white women experience-- note, for example, the way we see Celia Foote's class-based exclusion from the middle-class white women's bridge circle-- while we do not see what Aibileen's (Viola Davis) loss of her son really looked like and we rarely come back to it. We do not go through that journey with Aibileen the way we go through Celia Foote's struggles with exclusion or through Skeeter's struggles with feeling like an outsider because of her politics.

One might also argue that the dilemmas we see of the white women ought to be of lesser weight than those that we do NOT see of the black women since one's class and one's politics are relatively changeable features, while Aibileen's loss of her son was because of something that is not changeable (blackness). When Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis) is arrested and the cop bludgeons her, we almost see it, but the camera cuts away just in time and we hear a soft sound. Graphic depictions of violence are often unnecessary. But we do SEE the suffering of the white women depicted amply. So it's almost like the film, much like the era it describes, participates in silencing black women's voices.

Indeed, the overall mode through which this film addresses the history of black women in neoslavery is as a comedy. Remember what Saidiya Hartman says: “When history is emplotted in the comic mode, its mode of historical explanation tends to be organicist and its ideological implications conservative.”

We can see some of this conservatism in how the black women characters never radically challenge the order. While Aibileen certainly changes in some important ways and has a faceoff toward the end that she might not have had in the beginning, the personal journey of the story centers mostly around the white women. Even Minny, powerful as she is, remains basically the same. Yes, these women were and are brave and strong for surviving what they did. But we already knew that. So who is this film really being told by and for? The story soft-pedals the black women's suffering and dampens their bravery by channeling it through the white woman's narrative.

Finally, the film shows racism as a matter of interpersonal relationships, no structures of power. Racism, when it appears in the film, comes from unsavory white women. Racism appears to be a personal fault that one can choose to perform or not to perform, as with Charlotte Phelan's (Allison Janney) firing of Constantine (Cicely Tyson).

I say all this to say that I don't think the end justifies the means. I don't think the cost of telling these narratives through the voice of a white woman is worth the violence that it does to black women's voices.

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