Mississippi Goddam! Putting My Finger on the Problem with The Help

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    Jackson, Mississippi seems to be stuck in a time portal of sorts.

    Academy Award nominee Viola Davis stars in "The Help," now in theatres. Her face says it all...

    You know this is true when a Nina Simone song–inspired by the murder of Medgar Evars–rings true to a similar, horrific race-based murder in the same state. One minute the state, and the city in particular, is receiving a huge amount of attention by way of Kathryn Stockett’s national bestseller The Help, and the next minute a particularly heinous hate crime that occurred on June 26, 2011 has been revealed across national news. Forty-nine years old James Craig Anderson, who had truly been in the wrong place, on the wrong evening, was brutally beat by a group of white teenagers and ultimately run down by one of them in a Ford 250, simply because the driver wanted to “go fuck with some niggers.” Unknown to the teens, this entire event was caught on tape at the parking lot where it occurred. In addition to the slew of racist slurs and remarks exclaimed during the crime, the actual murder was captured and has been shared across the web on the national news sites in addition to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs. (Warning: The CNN video contains graphic footage of the hit-and-run, which appears at the 3:15 mark.)

    This isn’t to say that the two events–The Help film being released and the hate crime taking place–are directly related; in fact, the novel is set during the early 1960s at the beginning of Civil Rights while the hate crime took place June 2011. However, both stories involve white individuals declaring and believing themselves  to be overall superior to their black counterparts, an un-PC ideology that many Americans assumed to be dead or, at the very least, kept to one’s self. Being that many Americans consider the US to be a post-racial nation, The Help, a story that aims to illustrate the overarching human connection shared across racial boundaries, actually may end up causing more damage to any chances we have at becoming truly-post racial than a grisly murdering of an innocent black man by a group of intolerant white teenagers.

    Yes. I’m going to give much more significance to a fictionalized book turned movie, as opposed to the hate crime. Based off of the ads and trailers for the film, The Help is being touted as a film that’s both feel-good and family oriented–intended to warm the heart while connecting family members of all ages through a universal storyline.  Mind you, the book was written in the same vein–and, yes I did in fact read the book–however, when Hollywood is brought into the mix, themes of race and gender and black characters that were once complex instantly become less multidimensional. Not necessarily at the fault of the individuals responsible for the adaption of the novel, but at the fault of Hollywood’s ongoing drought of color on and off the screen. Because when it comes down to it, art, or in this case, art is clearly imitating life, however in the case of the black American community, art is only imitating a very narrow partition of life in a very redundant way. The filmmakers may not be explicitly saying that their films are a representation of every black person’s life, but when viewers continue to see the same archetypes and storylines for decades then the content begins to speak for itself.

    You’ve more than likely witnessed the uproar resulting from films such as PreciousTraining Day, and Monster’s Ball. All of those mentioned films center on a black protagonist having one or more stereotypical feature, and resulting in instant fame and critic praise  each of the actors and actresses portraying those roles. The Help has already begun to garner countless praise not only for the film itself, but for the award-worthy portrayals of the leading characters–particularly Viola Davis, a woman who has already been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Film (2008’s Doubt.) Halle Berry had been a previously nominated, but never a recipient, for an Oscar until she straight up donned the most stereotypical character she’s ever played (not including BAPS of course!) Same goes for Denzel. On top of this award trend for highly skilled and season black actors and actresses, The Help also falls into the white savior theme that many beloved films such as Avatar and The Blind Side fall into, which will definitely fare well for Emma Stone, who plays the white young woman who fills the savior role this time. Keep in mind that the argument against these roles isn’t necessarily against the actor or actresses acting chops. Both Emma Stone and Sandra Bullock are welcomed by groups of all races, mostly because of their chameleon-like ability to juggle the most hilarious film and the most pathologically tragic film.

    Also, the film’s setting of the Jim Crowe and Civil Rights period in the South provides another problem for many, mostly black, viewers. In her Huffington Post article entitled “How The Help Failed Us” writer and TV news producer Dyane Jean François writes,

    We are in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. Jim Crow. Segregation. Lynching. Medgar Evers assassinated. Still, this movie aspires to make you feel good. And it failed. The only positive thing about this movie is that it put several good Black actors on a screen before a wide audience. Maybe this movie will be a vehicle to higher ground for some of them.” She continues on to address specific scenes in the movie that were inappropriately directed as comic relief moments.

    Also questioning the different perceptions of this movie made by black viewers and white viewers, respectively, is Maud Dillingham of The Christian Science Monitor, who writes,

    That uncomfortable fact of certain American lives – the black servant who cares for a white family – is rooted in slavery, and this relationship undoubtedly is a source of complicated and conflicted emotions both for the caregivers and their charges. For white people who grew up with black nannies, ‘The Help’ may strike a nostalgic chord and a yearning [...] But one can’t help but wonder what kind of book and film would have resulted if Demetrie had written her own version of ‘The Help.’ Or whether a biopic of African-American activists such as, say, Fannie Lou Hamer or Septima Poinsette Clark, would impel three million people to buy movie tickets.

    The National Association of Black Women Historians has also released a statement (found here) imploring fans of the book not to support the film because of–what they believe to be–it’s stereotypically subjugating portrayal of black women and men.

    Now, I personally have yet to see this movie, although as I mentioned, I have read the book. Not because I was actually interested in the hype surrounding the novel, but instead I had decided not to judge a book by it’s cover (or rather, the synopsis in the book jacket, in this case.) My ultimate verdict? The Help did have its poignant literary moments and was written pretty well, allowing for readers of various levels to enjoy equally, but it was not on trial for that reason. Does the white savior trope ring true in this novel? I’d like to say, overall, no. Each character is depicted in a very humane way, despite race and class, and the common thread of humanity stays strong throughout the story line. Is it necessary for this film to be made into a film? In 1960–Yes. In 2011–No. Also, I personally know many women, who are in or close to my family, that have or continue to provide “help” (an understatement, being that these women provide so, so much more)  to well-off white families, and while 2011 is a vastly different landscape from the 1950s in Jackson, Mississippi, a similar social hierarchy is still alive and well.

    Yet how biting can a reality really be when sugar coated in feel good, family night goodness? The hate crime that occurred in June should not have happened at all, but it did which is a major indication of racial unrest in Mississippi, at the very least. It happened and it should not ever be made into a featured film as a means of delivering a message that black people and white people are the same underneath it all. Those people who didn’t realize that to begin with and needed a funny, heart warming film to inform them of this matter will need much more than two hours to get that message through their heads.

    Stay tuned for next week when I bring you a follow up after having gone to see the movie for my (Mississippi) goddam self…

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