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Thursday, August 18, 2011

'The Help'

I rarely go to movies in the Theater.

First of all, they've gotten so expensive - even way down here in tax-free LSD - as to tarnish the experience before I even sit down in the theater. And, as Ms. Conroy doesn't like many films other than those from Disney (I had to DRAG her to "Slum Dog Millionaire" and "Avatar" which she reluctantly admitted to liking), if I go, I have to go alone.

I read the book, "The Help" last summer and loved it. I thought the writing was excellent and the story very powerful. As a Caucasian woman the racism and sexism of this story of several upper-class Southern white families in the early 1960s, from the amused and bemused perspective of their black housekeepers and cooks – as told to a perky white female journalist - made me squirm.

I couldn't imagine the film improving on the power of the book - which, I've discovered, is often the case and another reason I don't go to see many movies in the Theater.

Apparently, the power of the movie version of 'The Help' is mostly in the controversy it has stirred.

Now, why this movie has caused such a flap - and not, say, "The Secret Lives of Bees" or "The Blind Side", or "Mississippi Burning", or "Driving Miss Daisy" or "The Legend of Bagger Vance" or "The Color Purple" even Disney's "A Song of the South" and "The Princess and the Frog" - is a bit of a puzzle to me.

Maybe 'we who believe in freedom' are getting just a bit weary about the current level of racism in our present cultural and political reality.

Those of us who understand the politics of race see what's going on in this country and are outraged and sickened by the undercurrent of racism directed at all the political attacks which have been leveled at the first Black man to occupy the White House.

Perhaps the real flap is over the comments and "tweets" made by Melissa Harris-Perry, the former Princeton professor, now from Tulane, who appears regularly on Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC.

She has become the "new Oprah" - smarter, better educated, articulate, more attractive - and many, many people listen to her. I confess to being a great admirer of hers and loved reading her blog, "Table Talk" when she was at Princeton and before she became famous.

Here are some of the things she "tweeted" from the theater as she watched the movie:
“Hard to tell whether it’s the representations of black women or of white women that’s most horrible”

“Thank God magical black women were available to teach white women how to raise their families and to write books!”

“The Help reduces sexism, systematic violent racism, and labor exploitation to a catfight that can be won by cunning and spunk.”
She also said on the Lawrence O'Donnell show that the movie was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they “found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. “It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced.”

“It’s ahistorical and deeply troubling,” she argued, to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film, and Harris Perry concluded on a good note: actress Viola Davis’s buzz was well-earned. “What kills me,” she concluded, “is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”

Look, I understand the outrage over 'white agency' and the anger at yet another movie from the 'White Liberal Guilt Theater', with the message that seems to say either, ""Aw, look at those poor Negroes, I just want to help them!" or "Well, there, I feel better knowing that there wouldn't be a Civil Rights Act much less a Black President without the help of White folk."

It's not exactly the same thing, of course, but I get the same way about the "male agency" that has some men claiming that women wouldn't have gained suffrage without the help of men.

Indeed, it was only just recently that, in a movie which featured a strong woman, there was always a scene where she twisted her ankle on her high heels and some man had to carry her over the finish line and off into a romantic sunset.

Or, the "straight agency" when some make the claim that Queer people wouldn't be brinked on the edge of full Marriage Equality without the help of straight people. Hell, I even yelled for months about the Tom Hank's movie "Philadelphia" concerning the early days of the AIDS crisis because there were no lesbians in the movie.

And, I'm here to tell you that gay men would not have made it through those early days without lesbian doctors, nurses and social workers doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Indeed, we were doing the hard work of pain and symptom and nutritional management, and keeping people comfortable in their own homes, and arguing with insurance companies for hours about covering the cost of health care and doing countless Adult Forums at churches and educational events at Community Centers.

No one is ever going to write a book or make a movie about that part of the story. Which is okay. No one I know did that work for any glory, much less thanks - although it would have been lovely to have earned a mention.

That's not the problem. The problem is, to some extent, there's some truth in all of those claims about the various forms of "agency".

The book and movie "The Help" are aptly named. It's all about 'help' and who helps who through the tangled mess and poisonous web of individual, corporate and cultural prejudices and various forms of oppression.

I wasn't going to write about this but something happened just yesterday morning that prompted me to say something.

I had dropped off my beloved pup, Theo, just up the street at 'The Wizard of Paws' to be groomed. I was then heading off to Lewes for a gathering of Episcopal Clergy sometimes referred to as "The Boys and Girls Club" because most of us are, shall we say, no longer boys and girls.

I was early for my meeting, so I stopped off at one of the convenience stores to get a cup of coffee and the newspaper. As I approached the counter to make my purchase, there was a young Black man - oh, early twenties, I would say - who had just purchased a cigar.

He was looking at his purchase with a confused look and said to the Very White woman at the register, "No... um... I'm sorry, ma'am, but.... this is not the one I pointed to."

The Very White woman glared at him, "Yes it is. You took it, you gave me $1.99, I rang it up. It's yours." Then she smiled sweetly at me and said, "I'll take that for you now, hon."

I looked over at the young man, his mouth open in utter astonishment and confusion. Two men - both White - appeared in line behind me with donuts and coffee.

I looked at her and said, "Well, before you take care of me, can I ask you a question?"

A flicker of nervousness flashed over her face and, through a crooked smile, she said, "Sure, hon."

At this point, the Black, older man who was sitting in the car I passed on my way into the store appeared at the door and looked in. I could feel the men behind me shifting their weight nervously.

I looked at the young man who was looking at the cigar and shaking his head, took a deep breath, looked at the Cashier and asked, "Does this store believe in good customer service?" (I swear to God, I had no idea I was going to say that and I had no idea where I was going with it.)

She smiled nervously and said, "Of course. Now, let me take your order."

At this point, the young man found his voice and said, "But, I don't understand. I pointed to that cigar right over there, but you gave me this one, and before I could say anything, you rang me up."

She glared at him and said, "That's the one you pointed to. Now, take it because I'll have to void the sale and it will mess up our inventory and I just don't have time for that. I've got other customers to wait on. Just take your cigar and be happy with it."

The older Black man who had been looking in through the glass door now made his way into the store and stood there, arms folded across his chest, listening.

I could feel the tension rising from the two White men behind me.

I looked at the Cashier and said, "Well, if there is good customer service in this store, then you know the saying that 'The Customer is always right'. Why don't you take back the cigar you just incorrectly sold him, void the sale, return his money, and let him purchase the cigar he wants?"

She shifted her weight as she held onto the cash register for balance and considered my words. "Sure," she smiled her crooked, nervous smile, "Let me take care of you and these two gentlemen and then I'll deal with him."

I smiled and said in my best cheery voice, "Oh, I don't mind. It won't take long, I'm sure." Then, turning to the young man I said, "Which cigar did you want?"

He allowed just a tinge of relief to flicker over his face as he pointed to the cigars and said, "That one."

The Cashier didn't move.

"That one?" I asked. "The one in the red wrapper?"

"Yessum," he said.

I looked at the Cashier and pointed to the cigar. "He'll have that one."

The Cashier tightened her grip on the cash register and glared at me and then at the young man. She didn't move. Indeed, I think she was holding her breath.

As she looked away to further consider what she might do, she turned her head and caught sight of the older Black man, standing silently at the door. Suddenly, she stood up straight and went directly to the cigar and started to ring it up.

"Wait," I said. "Let me see that cigar."

The Cashier handed it to me and I examined it, asking the young man, "Is this the one you wanted?"

"Yessum," he said.

Turning to the cashier I asked, "And, how much is this one?"

"Same price," she said through her crooked smile and clenched teeth.

"Ah, then it's an even exchange," I said. "You don't even have to ring it up or void the other sale. And, your inventory won't be messed up."

The young man silently handed the cigar over to her and I gave him the cigar he had wanted in the first place.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said quietly and politely to her.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said quietly and politely to me.

And then, just as quietly and politely, he and his older friend, who had said not a word, left the store. The older man did look at me and nodded his head, which I returned.

And that was that.

I will never understand what it's like to be Black but I do understand "micro-oppression", which are little incidences of prejudice that are like tiny paper cuts that build up on your soul.

At some point, they just make you want to holler.

Now, I don't think the story I just told you is about 'white agency'.

I didn't tell you that story to feel good about myself. Neither did I tell you that story to make you feel good about White people who help "poor Negroes" or bad about White people whose prejudices make them do stupid things.

I think that is a story about one human being - one Christian - helping another human being - perhaps another Christian - through the noxious web of prejudice and oppression.

And, you know, we all need help to do that, sometimes.

That's really what I took away from the book entitled "The Help". It's not just another white-girl-coming-of-age story. Neither is it really about oppression of "the help" of Black domestic women in the sharply segregated South.

Yes, it is all those things, but mainly it's about how the character, Skeeter, comes to understand how she has become the woman she is because of the help of The Help who were more mothers to her than her own mother.

As a college graduate who has returned home, she wants to help "The Help" by helping them tell their stories. In their own words.

Truth be told, if that story were written by former Black domestics, it would no doubt be relegated to the dusty shelves of Black Literature which no one would read, much less discuss.

Here's the thing: Because of this story, we are all 'helped' to discuss the soul-damaging subtleties of racism and sexism that existed and continued beyond the horror of the lynchings and the whippings and the tarrings and feathering that were also going on at the same time.

This may be a miscarriage of history for Melissa Harris-Perry and other Black Women and, you know, I understand. I do. Indeed, I think their outrage and anger are important contributions to the conversation.

Ultimately, for me, this is a story about the power of relationships which contain the ability to create the change in hearts and minds that change in laws can only hope to achieve, but don't.

Transformation begins in the human heart - and that's really the heart of the story of "The Help".

If you don't see the movie, I hope you at least read the book. And, I hope it makes you squirm.

More importantly, I hope it inspires you to have conversations with other people about important topics like social justice, racism, sexism, micro-oppression, cultural change, the power of relationships and transformation.

God knows, in terms of all those things, we need all the help we can get - even when it makes us squirm.


Matthew said...

For some reason I had thought her name was Melissa Harris Lacewell, but I have also been an admirer. I recall one testy exchange in which she totally cut Gloria Stenem down to size and challenged all of her assumptions. I like Gloria too, but the expression on her face made her look as though she was just hit with a wet noodle. She was stupefied. I think this exchange is on youtube somewhere. I'm glad you confronted the cashier in the store. This is so much more common that we want to admit.

MorningStar said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I hadn't heard about the book or movie til this weekend, and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to read it or not. I already knew I didn't want to see the movie. They're expensive and LOUD. I wind up feeling like I've been beaten up after I leave the theatre.

Kay & Sarah said...

I saw the movie and plan read the book. Wish I had read the book first. The movie did make me squirm. Being raised in the South with the lots of help from African American women (strong wonderful women!!) I saw many things in the movie that really made me uncomfortable. There were things that made me cry. It was interesting to see the people who were attending the movie many white women 60 and over.....many more than you usually see at a movie.

I hope this this movie helps us to begin conversations that are long overdue. I have suggested that our Adult Education group use the movie and/or book and discuss it with reference to our Baptismal Covenant. We will see if makes it past the suggestion part.

Grace-WorkinProgress said...

We can spend a lot of time being outraged by what life has dished out to us or we can work with what we got on our plate.

It seems this is what people have done throughout history while still moving in the right direction. The media likes to focus on the lack of progress while the rest of us work with the life we have been given.

No, humans don't like change and we fight anything that upsets our daily lives. On the other hand get tired of the status quo and take a stand every once in awhile when our heart is touched by anothers pain.

God has a plan even if we are too busy to pay attention to it. I trust that everything is exactly as it is suppose to be.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - She was formerly married to Dennis Lacewell, with whom she has a daughter and is now married to James Perry who was a 2010 candidate for Mayor of NOLA.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MorningStar - I had forgotten about "the loud". Maybe I won't be going to the theater. Maybe I'll wait for Netflix.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kay and Sarah - Nothing would make me happier than to have this movie take us deeper into conversations - and relationships.


Thanks, Elizabeth, for your post and story. The whole race and racism subject is filled with buried mines, and we do just have to walk ahead, eyes forward and hands out to the people all around us, giving help where we can and taking help where we find it. In the beginning and in the end, we are all beloved children of the one true God.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Grace - I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on the "God's plan" thing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lelanda - Thanks for your visit and your comments.

Terri said...

Earlier this week I wrote on my blog about this book, my wonderings about the criticisms, my thoughts about the "-isms" we encounter today....but you have said it so well. Thank you.

it's margaret said...

mmmmmmmm, she says from Richmond....

Muthah+ said...

I grew up in the South with such goings on but for the most part, because we were too poor to be of the Junior League set. What I saw in The Help was the classism that permeated society.

I remember saying to Carter Heyward once in a Liberation theology class on racism that if we had gone to high school together (we're the same age) she would never have spoken to me. She asked me to look around the campus to find other students who had grown up working class. I could find only 3.

We can find all kinds of things that can keep us a part: race, lgbt, class, education, what clubs we belong to.

What the Incarnation does is remind us, no matter what our differences, our humanity makes us one. I love the movie and now I will go back and read the book. I am sure there is more in there that will not only make me squirm but also say, thanks be to God we have been able to overcome some of it.

susankay said...

Our conversations are grounded in WHEN we are having them. I remember, with some embarassment, a discussion in 1960 or '61 by a bunch of white kids at an American Friends Committee camp. We debated whether it was better to refer to our mother's "help" as "colored" or "Negro" -- I remember voting for capitalizing "Negro". "Black" and "African American" had not yet emerged. None of us were people of color and all of us came from families with "help". But ... We went on to picket Woolworths, become civil rights lawyers and march with King.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Terri - Thank you. I'll have to stop by your blog to read your reflections.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Margaret. Still chewing this one over, are you?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah+ I've always said that classism is the Original Sin of TEC.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - context is so very important.

kenju said...

The book did make me squirm and so did the movie.

Good for you for standing up for the young guy in the store.

Lisa Fox said...

I don't understand why some people have chosen to bash this movie. I read the novel, and it moved me deeply. I haven't seen the movie, but I plan to do so.

I lived through the Civil Rights movement. I was on the wrong side of that movement. I recall those days with shame.

I am also a student of literature. No author can tell the whole story. I admire this author for telling a bit of the story. Blame her for telling it from a white woman's perspective? DUH! From what other perspective could she tell it?? She's a white woman. She tells the story as best she can. She wrote a story. She doesn't claim to tell The Story! Give her a break! The Whole Story won't be told until everyone tells her story.

Elizabeth, I think you are right about relationships being the point. So, too, does one of the actresses in the movie (from

"Though The Help is set during the civil rights era, Spencer insists it is not a civil rights movie. "To me, it's more a movie about relationships, how these white women relate with each other and then how they relate to the women ... who work in their homes," she says.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kenju - I think making us squirm is another part of the power of this book.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lisa - Amen to Octavia who said this was not a Civil Rights movie. It's one about relationships and the power of those relationships to change and transform. That the characters are all women is significant and a point not to be missed.

Rev. Dr. Helen Betenbaugh said...

Matthew, forgive me if someone already responded to your comment/query about Melissa-Tulane-Professor's name. It was Lacewell when I first encountered her powerful guest spots on MSNBC. She and her first husband subsequently divorced. She is now married to a gentleman in LA with the surname Perry, hence the Harris-Perry. I wondered myself and looked it up a few weeks back when she did such a compelling job as Rachel Maddow's substitute.

Now, to Elizabeth's brilliant blog. . . I'm also an Episcopal priest, a Yankee by birth, who grew up in central North Carolina. I ache with shame when I remember how I was told not to drink from the "Colored Only" water fountain while waiting at the train station for my grandparents to arrive from NYC. The "White Only" fountain being covered by an "Out of Order" sign, my mother's response to my obvious question was that the other was "not clean" because "they" were not clean.

Fast forward a couple of decades, when I was intrigued by a little "space filler" article in a newspaper that the majority of seminarians had responded to a poll question about the identity of God by saying "She was a Black woman." I suspect that to put a fine point on it would be to say that respondents' experiences of the very kind of Black women who were portrayed in "The Help" matched most closely with their understanding of God.

There's another aspect of the film that I've not seen mentioned in any of the many articles I've read, but was profound for me when I saw the movie a few weeks after I'd read the book: the only touch I can recall seeing, White to Black, was the equally outcast Celia Foote, the "white trash" blonde in the movie whose only female friend was Minny. Further, their lunch was the only time a White woman chose to sit at the same table as her maid. The presentation of the meal she prepared for Minny to eat, to be joined by husband Johnny, was so powerful to me that I gasped and wept. (The translation of the Latinate word "companion" is one with whom one has [broken, shared, eaten] bread.) While it wasn't in the book, it certainly summarized the couple's gratitude for Minny's devotion to them.Further, it exemplifies my belief that so often, real confrontation of systemic evil, real change comes not from the Center, but from those on the margins who have been marginalized because of other issues. See "To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything" as a prime example of this.

I don't add this to the conver-sation to go on a tangent, but because it seems to me to follow naturally from Elizabeth's overall assessment of the movie. Wish some of you could have been in the Ladies' Room of the North Dallas (read "yuppie," "privileged," "Society") theater in which I saw the movie to hear the comments of various White women emanating from behind pale gray stall doors! THANK YOU, ELIZABETH!

Turtle Woman said...

I really liked the movie, but I can also understand the smouldering rage of black women sick to death of having to see other talented black actresses portray maids. Black women have been stuck in maid roles for eons, and it's the same kind of anger I have over "Mad Men" and the sexism so "lovingly" replayed yet again, or the upcoming TV show about Playboy bunnies. RAGE. It's the same rage I feel as a lesbian when MILK came out, and all the lesbians who had helped defeat Prop 6 were nowhere in the movie. They had one token lesbian. So I'm sick to death of all of it, and I want movies with real stories, the real stories of what black women are doing... epic stories of Audre Lorde, or epic stories of the life of Mary Daly. You get sick of seeing maids or sex objects made into major movies, and I think we need to really get that!

Lisa Fox said...

Yes, Elizabeth. That's why I copied Octavia Spencer's comment. Like you, she sees the movie being about relationships and transformation ... as you did ... and as I did in my reading of the novel.

Lisa Fox said...

Turtle Woman, I am trying to respond here within the bounds of courtesy that Elizabeth has established for her blog.

I'm getting pretty weary or comments like yours: "I can also understand the smouldering rage of black women sick to death of having to see other talented black actresses portray maids."

I grew up as barely above Poor White Trash. Have you ever seen a Poor White Trash actress portray someone like me in the movies? Of course not! Wealthy white women play the Poor White Trash roles in the movies. And that's not just "o.k." with me; I celebrate when they do a fine job of it ... as they did recently in Winter's Bone. I could also hearken back to that classic, The Grapes of Wrath: More "poor white trash."

I'm happy -- very happy with those portrayals. Why do we use a different measure when the stories are about black people?

walter said...

Elizabeth 4, once upon a time there was our Christian child challenged by a difficult and complex progressive transition from an oral organization of libido to an anal organization of libido. He was told by his mother of some instances of somnambulism where he was walking towards the garbage basket in the kitchen to fare pipì. Clearly he could not believe because he did not remember. Then one night he found himself standing on top of his parent’s bed. He was directed towards his mother. His mother, defensively projecting the child intention toward his father, told the child to dare to fare pipì on his father. The child was not sure if the mother meant well or else. However he trusted his mother. His father woke up while the child was urinating and verbally abused the child by calling him with contemptuous language referring to oral sex, combining the figure of the child with that of the mother. The child went back to sleep eventually. The day after while in the kitchen with his mother, he was told to go to the bathroom, undress and to wait there for his mother. The child naively asked his mother if it was going to be about a pleasant surprise and his mother “reassured” him. While the child was naked in the bathroom his mother came and started to hit the child with a belt. The child was screaming painfully asking his mother “why”? She brutally denied to give reasons to the child and would not stop until the child would say that he was not going to do “it” anymore. Poor child he did not even know what was it that he would not do anymore as he was physically and emotionally overwhelmed by his mother physical and verbal brutality.

Some of the anal organization of libido centers on the awareness of retention and release of some of the child’ natural functions. And conversely any form of opening may be experienced as a partial sublimation of the anal’ organization component of the Christian Libido – an interesting distinction; Christian Agape versus Libido.

The Affirmative Mystic on his way to the college’ experience was rubbed of his money while at the station. He started to cry and suddenly saw a broad shouldered’ Man smoking a cigar standing by. His attention seemed to have centered on the transition from tobacco to ashes as the broad shouldered Man was smoking and reassuring Howard giving to him the money stolen to go to college. Sometime a cigar is not just a cigar.

Walter Vitale