*The reviews of the movie “The Help” have ranged from laudatory to outright brutal. I think I’ve read over a dozen reviews from writers whose point of view is either shaded by rose colored glasses of white heroism to those who glasses are shattered by the realities of racism against Africa Americans in this country.
The most memorable article I’ve read are entitled “Like Good Southern Cooking The Help Comforts and Satisfies,” “The Help: A Feel Good Movie for White” and, “The Help is Useless for African Americans.”
There have been diverse perspectives and critiques for this big box office summer hit. During its opening week it was number 2 on the top ten box office list and made over $25.5 million when it debuted. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “the movie received a rare A+ CinemaScore and is playing especially well both in African-American communities and upscale cinemas, including the ArcLight in Los Angeles.” So apparently the movie has found an audience despite the chorus of mixed and negative reviews. And each subsequent week, it continues to earn more millions.
I initially was put off by the reviews I had read. While I wanted to support the work of Viola Davis whom I think is an absolute gift to the planet, I wrinkled my noise at the prospect of sitting through yet another “period piece” from a time in our history that was so hurtful, insular and inclement.
The story line of black housekeepers working for white families in Mississippi during the Jim Crow period was heralded as one of the “untold stories” of that era. Perhaps it was. But given the backdrop, how could the rigors and reality of that kind of subjugation lend itself to the lightness, brightness, humor, triumph and delight shown in the trailers I saw on television? I couldn’t’ image it.
I was right.
I saw the movie and was hoping that I could get past my “period piece” hang up, escape into the movie and enjoy it. But I couldn’t. I’m just too conscious for that. It made me wince and squirm despite how beautifully shot it was and how poignant the performances were. Seeing the conditions and treatment endured by my foremothers was painful. This wasn’t a fairy written by a white author, it was laced in history, African America history. The injection of historical events into the film, like the shooting of Medgar Evans, fueled my discomfort. The last time I was that disturbed at a movie was in 1995 when I went to see “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored,” which also took place in Mississippi. Though written from an African American perspective, it was no less painful to endure.
The African American experience is a cornucopia of experiences. But the big box office movies that get the green light about the African American experience don’t reflect that. For the “other tribe” they do. They ensure a range of characters are brought to the screen from the Anne Hathaway’s of “The Prince Diaries to the Anthony Hopkins’ in Silence of the Lambs. Unfortunately, this range of characters is just not evident when it comes to films that feature African American characters. Our range is limited to roles that highlight slavery, abuse, corruption, substance abuse, and hopelessness. Then Hollywood lauds these films and awards actors for their “extreme and divergent performances” and uses phases such as “highly acclaimed” to describe these movies in their reviews. Where is the balance?
After seeing “The Help,” I don’t see how this movie comforts the soul. It disquieted mine. And if this was a feel good movie for white people, God help them and us because this signals that they lament the departure of the social structure depicted in the film.
But is “The Help” useless for African Americans? Maybe not.
A friend of mine that moved to New York two years ago recently remarked to me about a phenomenon he’s seeing in Manhattan that he’s not seen in Los Angeles. It’s the pervasive presence of African American female nannies caring for white children. Is there a silent return to the former days depicted in the movie? Now that is story worth covering and telling from the nannies perspective. Why did these women become a nanny? What’s their background, history and education or lack thereof? How were they recruited? How are they treated by their employer? How much are they paid? Is this a bellwether that’s not being tracked on anyone’s radar? This movie has certainly helped me to raise these questions. My inquiring mind wants to know. Looks like I got something out of “The Help” after all.
(Veronica Hendrix is a syndicated columnist and feature writer whose work has covered the span of the human continuum – from clinical trials of male contraceptives, to the gang violence. For comments, interviews, speaking engagements or moderator requests please send an email to [email protected].)