Help Me Out: Black Women's History

Feb 27 2012 Published by under [Etc]

Last night's Academy Awards featured stars in glittery gowns and lint-free tuxedos. My husband has a low tolerance for the show, so after I got my fill of red-carpet gowns and shoes, we watched a best-picture nominee and followed the prizes via twitter. Yes, my husband wanted to watch The Help.

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I read it, loved it, and blogged it last summer. As the movie gained traction, I have heard more stories about my life in 1960's Houston, TX, including the day my mom  took me to the "colored" toilet in a shopping mall. She had a toddler who had to pee, and she saw a restroom marked for women. When she came out, apologetic store clerks told her the error of her ways. My own kids hear these stories and cannot believe that we ever allowed such stupidity.

I was really routing for both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis to take home statuettes last night for their performances in the movie adaptation of this book (although Meryl Streep is fantastic in everything she does). Both women brought such depth and grace to these roles that even my husband was impressed by the movie. However, the twitter feed eventually lit up with complaints about these women playing maids in this day and age.

I wonder if these same folks bitch about those playing maids and footmen in Downton Abbey "in this day and age?"

My disclaimer follows:

If you have seen my photo, you know I am not African American; I have a proud insect ethnicity (WASP). I have felt like "the other" on occasion in my life. When I started out in medicine, everyone immediately assumed that any woman was a nurse. Now, when every medical show on television has multiple female physicians, this happens far less often. The nurses in these shows remain overwhelmingly women, though, reflecting the current reality. D00ds are still doctors till proven otherwise.

However, I may not be as sensitive to racial stereotypes since that has not been part of my experience.

The Help is a period piece, a story of a misguided time that we must not forget. It's the story of invisible women whose story becomes part of the record. I do not remember this sort of issue with Morgan Freeman playing a chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, another flick set in 1960's Mississippi (although that film came out during my fellowship when I had a two-year-old child and may have missed the controversy).

What do those who complain about these actresses playing maids want? Better roles for actresses of color? Hell, I would like to just say better roles for actresses in general (that could be another whole post).  Do they not want this story told? Because the world is better if we pretend this period never happened?

Or could this be another example of African American women being ignored? There's a museum for the men who waited on white people as Pullman porters and a book on the same. Should this work be adapted into a movie starring male actors, would they get put down for taking demeaning roles in a movie set in segregated US?

As I said in my original post:

The bottom line seems to be that housekeeping and childrearing remain undervalued. These chores require no specialized training, but they remain essential to our lives.

They are "women's work."

A male actor playing someone who takes on a demeaning job to support a family seems heroic. A woman playing a part where she cooks, scrubs floors, and raises others' children to achieve the same end...not so much. At least, for some. For me, the real value of The Help was making those women more than cardboard characters in the background. They were as brave and courageous as the men depicted during those same period dramas.

This week following the Oscars, we transition from Black History Month to Women's History Month. It's a great time to explore the contributions of black women to our world. And what a greater way to honor two amazing movie performances!

Even Meryl would approve as chair of the effort for the National Women's History Museum.

13 responses so far

  • BikeMonkey says:

    1) yes, Driving Miss Daisy was an issue.

    2) the complaint is not about history. But that there are so few roles for African Americans , the subservient ones loom large and Oscar worthy race-blind? -irrelevant? Roles are so scarce.

  • Another big complaint I heard about both book and film was the centering of white women's experience in the telling of the story -- white women discover unfair treatment of the help (something which the help themselves wouldn't have noticed??) and exercise their agency to save the day.

    I take it, though, this is separable from the acting chops displayed in the film.

    • Pascale says:

      Seems to me the black women noticed that their lives were unfair; the white woman was merely the catalyst for action, something she seems to do less out of sympathy than self-interest in driving her own career.

      While there are some box-office hits that defy the rule, I suspect that the interlacing with stories of white women made the project far more commercially viable.

      • That it takes the centering of a white point of view to make the story worth caring about (because presumably the people who buy movie tickets are all white?) was a large part of what bugged people about The Help, as far as I could tell.

        • Pascale says:

          The book was written by a white woman who was one of those 1960s Jackson children. Had the maids actually narrated the book described in The Help, they could have made a movie without a driving white character. That did not happen; instead, Skeeter grew up and wrote a novel. People bought it, and they made a movie which some really talented actresses brought to life.

          I guess those who wrote the screenplay could have written the script without the central white character, but then it would not have really been the adaptation of the novel. And let's face it- this is a work of fiction. Would the "terrible awful" really have happened and gone unpunished because Hilly was embarassed? I think not.

  • Bashir says:

    I have not seen or read the Help. I can tell you some general complaints

    -Blacks are usually subservient. Both in terms of their occupation and place in the plot. They are merely a vehicle for expunging white-guilt. The story always ends with main white character getting a proverbial cookie for not being too racist. The black character is essentially a set piece. The story is really about them.

    see: Blind Side (film), To kill a mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Bagger Vance, etc.

    Counter examples: Malcolm X (film), A Gathering of old men (book), Dream Girls, etc.

  • DJMH says:

    If you're cast in Downton Abbey, you could be cast as anything: Lady or lady's maid or kitchen staff. If a black person is cast in a movie, the chances of their having a starring role are pretty slim. This is DM's point #2, that there just aren't a lot of major studio films where black people have a chance at being anything but the maid or mouthy sidekick.

    • Pascale says:

      But here the maids are stars; the story is really about them (as it is about the staff in Downton Abbey). Can we not tell the story of less than powerful people?

      • Sure; just like the nurses. You said yourself, when the women on screen started being doctors, people stop assuming the real-life women doctors were nurses. I agree with you; we don't want to stop movies like this being made, and stories like this being told. But there NEED to be more and better roles for women of colour, and they need get away from these subservient stereotypes. It takes nucleating centres like this for protests to reach the critical mass where the industry hears them.

        (Yes, and for women in general, and for people of colour in general. Not the focus here.)

        • Pascale says:

          Women on screen started being doctors as women became more than a third of new MDs. I'm not certain if the new reality drove the screen that drove the public perception or if reality drove the public directly. Either way the reality of women physicians became real for the public in the office and on the screen.

          I agree that we need better roles; unfortunately, we can't change what Mississippi was like in 1964.

  • becca says:

    It's got phenomenal acting, I agree.
    It was illustrative to me (in a tripping over my own privilege sort of way) that I thought it was a sad movie like The Pursuit of Happyness or Pan's Labyrinth (bittersweet, some hopeful notes). From what Carebear said, I got the impression he thought it was a sad movie like Boys Don't Cry or Blood Diamond (the wrongness of what it is depicting hits you in the gut like a sack of bricks).

  • Hermitage says:

    I'm glad you're trying to get it...but yea you don't get it. Possibly helpful:
    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/ten-issues-that-tarnish-the-help/
    http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/07/my-problem-with-the-help/

    Outside issues with the movie itself, it is frustrating to see black people win Oscars for these roles AND when they don't win Oscars for these roles. It is frustrating when they win because the Academy seems unable to give blacks awards for empowering roles, instead waiting it out until they can hand it out for a sterotypical role...even for actors who have had fantastic careers (e.g. Denzel for playing a thug cop, not for playing Malcom X, Mo'nique for playing a degenerate mother, Octavia for playing a stereotypical maid, Halle for an alcohol-driven sex scene with Billy Bob's racist character).

    It is frustrating when they do not win Oscars for these roles, because we know that if they don't get it for this, they likely never will. I've seen comments around the internets, and even from Charlize Theron, that Viola will have a long and successful career and Oscars don't matter, blah blah blah. Viola has been working for YEARS, she is not new, just ignored. She has said in almost every interview she's had that she has not received any uptick in her (nonexistent) script offers since having such a phenomenal year. She will go back to being an invisible, fantastic actress her works on Broadway, has bit parts in the occasional film, and will get the most work from Tyler Perry movies.

    • Pascale says:

      My kids (19 & 24) watch stuff from the 60's and simply cannot believe that they really had separate toilets and water fountains and killed people, even when there are photos in the history books. I was glad we had the story to trigger my mom's stuff about taking me to the wrong bathroom in a department store to drive home to them how real and recent this was.

      After Viola lost, my husband was trying to figure out what else he had seen her in. I came up with Doubt, but had to pull her up in IMDB because the rest of what I knew was stage work. Sure enough, a few parts in Madea movies (which I confess are a guilty pleasure of mine but hubby won't watch them), but even the upcoming roles looked less meaty. What a waste of a gorgeous, talented actress. Of course, there's a lot of that for actresses between the age of "Hot bod" and "Grandma" because women of a certain age just aren't of interest. Pity we have to wait for biopics.

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