Once in a while a movie comes along that ends up providing you with a tremendous educational opportunity. For me that movie is The Help based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett. At the time of writing this post I had not read the book. A friend of mine had asked me if I had heard about this book called The Help. She told me she was hooked and loved it. That put it on the radar for me, but I still didn’t run out to get it. It was then I started hearing more and more about this book and upcoming film.
As a movie lover, Actress and Independent Producer the movie angle was what really got me. I still didn’t know much about it other than it was about Black (I will be using Black as opposed to African-American in this post) maids in the South during the 60′s, but what I did know was that several wonderful actresses were going to be featured. I want to see anything Viola Davis is in! She is supremely talented and watching her is a blessing and an education. I have also grown to appreciate Bryce Dallas Howard’s work. During the credits of several films, I found myself shocked that she had even been in the movie. She had morphed for me into the character so much so that I didn’t recognize it was her.
Now, Octavia Spencer was an actress I had my eye on before I learned about her involvement in The Help. We were kicking around names for our narrative project, Life with ALICA, and hers was one that came up - but I’ll come back to that later. I hadn’t had a chance to truly see what she could do with a large role in a project. This was my first opportunity to sit back and take her performance in. It was worth the wait and she was spectacular. I was duly impressed with all of the female leads, including Emma Stone, who I really enjoy.
I saw an advanced screening of The Help back in June. I was blown away and I loved the film. It did what movies, in my humble opinion, are supposed to do. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry. In coming out of the film and talking to friends and colleagues I began to realize that not everyone was on the “I love The Help” bandwagon. Immediately following the film several of us had a brief discussion about this being another film where talented black actresses were relegated to playing maids in a stereotypical roles.
I guess this is the point where my education begins. I’m not sure what the answer is. As a “Black” actress trying to get the combination of blessings and breaks required to do what I love AND make a living, I’ll be the first to tell you that the roles available to me are few and far between. Add the fact that I am a plus size or “real person” type and my odds diminish further. So when roles like this are available, do we not take them as a form of protest? Do we demand that the characters get re-written until there is some public consensus from the Black collective at large that the roles are not offensive or hurtful to our culture?
I’m not trying to be flip about these questions. With much chagrin I admit that I didn’t find The Help offensive. I found the actions of the characters offensive, but probably just the way Kathryn Stockett intended that I did. One of my friends, who is a Black woman and a Producer, asked me what I thought of the film. She hated it. I was shocked. I think I’ve always known that I grew up in a Wonderbread world where the majority of my community and friends were not Black. My Black experience is like many others, but as I have come into my own as a Producer delving into the Black community (and specifically, the Black film community) that Wonderbread world is falling apart.
I have a few friends that are graduates of Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCU) and I often joke that you can spot them a mile away. I used to say that they had a chip on their shoulder, but I am beginning to understand that they are educated in ways I could never imagine and hold the world to a higher standard than I would consider. I know who Medgar Evers is, but I missed the inaccuracies portrayed in The Help. One of the issues that gives me most pause is when the feedback is that the way the Black characters speak in the book and film is offensive. To that my question is, didn’t people speak like that? Again, I am not trying to make light of the situation. Clearly there is a gigantic need for the rest of our stories to be told. The ones that feature the educated and empowered side of our history (and maybe I’m not even phrasing that correctly.)
I realize that I have much to learn about the history of Blacks in America. I am the American born daughter of parents who immigrated from Haiti over 40 years ago, and who was raised in a predominantly White neighborhood. I was taught to assimilate and to work harder because nothing was going to be handed to me. I’m not sure where I fit in, but I know that I created my own community. I love that my community now resembles the United Nations. My friends come from all ethnicities and many different countries around the world, but that still does not provide the formative education I clearly could use about Black culture in the United States.
What I do know for certain is that it’s not enough to say that movies like The Help are offensive. Some will love it, others will hate it. At the end of the day, I believe the movie will be a huge box office success. The mainstream viewer will miss the majority of the things that people will find offensive in this film. In my experience many may be confused about the fuss. Where does that leave those who feel like we have once again set Blacks back 50 years by performing in, supporting or outright praising this film?
I think this is the gap. The place where there is huge educational potential. Did I worry when contemplating this blog that some people would be upset with my views? Yeah, a little bit. But at the end of the day I am a woman, a mom, an independent artist and a student of life. I am here now with the questions I have because my perspective was such that I didn’t see a reason for offense. Since viewing the movie I have been open to hearing about the offensive nature of the film. Like anything else, I try it on and if it resonates I look for an opportunity to learn more. If it doesn’t fit, then I just let it be.
As I read some of the write ups about The Help, it makes me feel less educated about my community, my history and my responsibility as a Black person in the world. I used to feel ashamed about that, but now I realize that I can only be who I am at this moment. I have a chance to learn more about American history, and in particular Black American History. Here are the two posts I read prior to writing this post http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/saint-aibileen/ and http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/07/my-problem-with-the-help/.
I do believe that collectively we have a responsibility to bring films, television and other works of art that we can be proud of to the mainstream. That is where I see the greatest struggle. You can be upset that this film was made, or that Black actresses took these roles, but until there are hundreds and thousands of other stories being told that give us positive and empowering opportunities these stories will continue to be in the forefront of mainstream media. It’s not enough to write the story. We must be able to get these stories funded, produced, distributed and most of all – achieve consistent box office success.
On our journey to get our narrative project Life with ALICIA made, we’ve heard a lot of disheartening feedback. We’ve heard it’s not Black enough, it’s too Black or that there is no audience for a show like ours. Life with ALICIA was born out of our desire to see positive images of Blacks in the media and Blacks that looked like us (myself and my business partner at the time, Cymande Lewis). We can handle the feedback that it’s not interesting, or that it was poorly executed or that it had already been done, but that’s not what we heard. Here is a link to the pilot teaser so you can judge for yourself http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJeDCmtKU5M.
What we heard was that we had created characters that were likable, that were accessible and relevant, that the issues our main characters were facing were universal issues. Our project is a starting point. It’s born from a need to be heard, seen and recognized. It addresses the things we don’t see in the mainstream media, but after two years we are still pushing. Maybe the timing is off or perhaps our blessing is right around the corner. This is not about embracing our individual show, although that would be great. I believe that the solution lies in getting behind positive and empowering stories and uplifting them all the way until they smash the box office.
We can sit back and criticize all day long, and in many cases it will be valid. The Help is providing me an educational opportunity to embrace what I don’t know or have been too complacent to see. With a little bit of education perhaps as I build out programs in the future I will have a greater sensitivity to the cultural nuances and offenses that are still a major part of mainstream media. This is no small undertaking. This is the beginning of a lifetime of learning. I am up to the challenge and can only hope that from this moment forward I will be able to appreciate all film with a wider lense.