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so help me

Posted on Wednesday, 1st February 2012 @ 09:53 PM by Text Size A | A | A

The Hollywood award season in full bloom, I considered giving last summer´s blockbuster, The Help, nominated in several categories by the experts and critics, a second chance to win me over. The period drama had two months before, whipped me into a state of emotion located somewhere between annoyance and ennui, but I had suffered in silence as my gal pal waxed warm, insisting the overrated movie we were watching merited an A grade. Maybe, The Help was worth my while or at the very least, my longanimity.

The second time around was no sweeter than the first and the will to be tolerant could take me no further than the contrived flashback swing set scene in which the supposedly heart -of- gold protagonist with the ginger curls is seen as a teen engaged in syrupy conversation with her dearly beloved black Mammy Constantine, played by Cicely Tyson, who is trying to buoy her with her “conventional, black” wisdom. At that point, I surmised that I would forever detest this movie.

The loathing came from the base of my gut. Not only was The Help historically imperfect, in this day and age it irked to see the black woman portrayed as a maid, particularly when Hollywood was making next to no great films in which black women were given starring parts, and when featured, the characters were hollow, predictable, they were caricatures of Afro America females, composed mainly by white men. We had types such as Miss Ghetto Fabulous, the welfare queen, madame fat and sassy and the ever dependable sensible black friend.

The Help had been crafted from a book by a white female and gave the purported viewpoint of  black maids as redacted by a young white woman. Why had Hollywood chosen this book for a film? Were there no stories to be told about black women, written by black women? This was a white narrative, a modern day Gone with the Wind which idealised the black woman back into the kitchen, in an age when a black woman ran the White House. As for the black man, he was absent and if present, violent, yet in the film, we saw none of the white husbands doing what “respectable” white men did then: join the Ku Klux Klan.

The film had got the thumbs up from Hollywood because the people voting were not Afro American, but largely white and conservative. The reviews from a large section of the black community had been scathing, the movie slammed for painting the realities of the Jim Crow South as “segregation lite.” The Association of Black Women Historians released a stinging statement.  “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice,” the women declared, “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”  The Association claimed the book omitted a great deal of the hardship endured by black domestics. One of these was the continued sexual harassment of them by their white male employers.

The group also thought it unacceptable for either the book or the film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment. They found the film´s popularity as disturbing as I did, and for the same reasons: it has revealed a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

To be fair, some black women have come to the film´s defence, but these were few and far between. On the whole it had raised their tempers.

The Help wants to be a film about white women and black women coming together to work against injustice. But ultimately it’s too small and too petty a story that is too removed from the real atrocities of the Jim Crow South to be anything other than a vehicle through which a rich, white woman profits from the retelling of the histories and experiences of black women,” concluded Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, a staff writer for Campus Progress, a group of young people working for progressive change.

I thought about my woman friend who had effused and realised that she had liked the film because she was white and she had been comfortable in her skim watching it. She had probably assumed that its effigies of the black woman of the sixties had been accurate. I on the other hand had found it treacly and revolting. She had disliked the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids, but if you asked me its ensemble cast of women were real and refreshing, a truer representation of modern day middle America minus the typical frustrating cliches. She had hated the sight of the women in Bridesmaids defecating in their dresses on the silver screen, but I chuckled at the daring. My viewer´s award would go to a film with real excrement and not to The Help, which was just another cotton candied celluloid representation of Hollywood feculence.

www.suzannemills.net

 

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