21 August 2011


There is no end to the guilt that white people experience regarding the legacy of slavery and race relations in the United States. Rightly so. Perhaps as Freud suggested, we whites work out our guilt and shame in dreams and the popular media productions. It is a nightmare history from which we would escape, yet there can be no respite from this guilt. I am weary of the seemingly endless attempt to find some absolution. 
The film The Help (I didn’t read the book) was a feel-good film made for whites only, addressing a very complex and ugly issue with a simple-mindedness that not only belies but falsifies the reality. Oh, these things happened, but I suspect what transpired was a lot more ugly than the film depicts. Nor was the resolution as easy as the film suggests. The attempt here was to give voice to those who had been rendered voiceless, but finally the film didn’t give them much to say. Most of the work was accomplished by Skeeter (Emma Stone), a twenty-two year old citizen of Jackson, Mississippi, who has graduated with a degree in journalism, returns to her place of origin, gets a job writing the Miss Myrna domestic advice column for or the local paper. In her very short tenure, she decides to write a book exploring the experience of domestic hire in the deep South from the perspective of the help—African-American women oppressed and terrified. She had been raised by one of the Help and never quite found out what had happened to her. She learns. 
Ah, but whites always have the necessary connections, don’t they? Skeeter’s book sees publication because she is white working in a white publishing New York City world. It is her voice that reaches the world. In The Help the good guys win in the end, though it is at the time more a moral victory, the best kind because it requires little personal sacrifice. T film’s end, not too much has changed. But the film’s resolution satisfies because we know that conditions finally did improve, but not with the ease or bloodlessness that the film suggests. Not many of us in the audiences suffer directly from the struggle. Like at the movies, we were mostly spectators. And I suspect that some of us might have even been complicit. There were too many martyrs, and too many deaths, and the attempt to tell the tale through the voices of the help fails completely because it is a white woman through whom they must speak. Skeeter’s project is viable because she lives on the family plantation that probably once was worked by slaves. It employs Black domestic help. 
At the showing I screened this afternoon the theater was filled not only with whites, but the seats were occupied also predominantly by women. It was the women who managed the African-American domestic help, hiring and firing the servants with abandon and impunity. Perhaps the women felt especially culpable. Perhaps they sought a form of catharsis, and to experience some relief from responsibility. The film, we knew, would end hopefully and we would feel exonerated. And though in the end power remains in the hands of the white power-elite, the times, we knew, they were a’changin—though the only Bob Dylan song in the sound track was “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” It was played when Skeeter’s racist boyfriend abandons her because her work gives voice to the Help.  “Yes, you just sorta wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s alright.” 
No it wasn’t alright! Skeeter’s book has narrated the stories she has heard from the help, and in her work Jackson, Mississippi and its racist population are exposed.  In the end, the white women might have been exposed in their racism—but neither did these women have reason to really care. Nothing had really changed. The film’s last shot, of the fired (and now endangered) maid, Abilene, walks down a long road through the center of residential Jackson, and in a voice-over says that someone once said that someone in her family would be a writer and that now it seems it would be her—a line at which the audience applauded—was written by a white person in a movie directed and produced mostly by white people. Once again, Black voices appropriated by white folks. 
White people exposed? To quote another Dylan song, nothing was delivered. Mississippi appears in the film exactly as those of us who lived through the era knew it: Phil Ochs very early and rightly had demanded that Mississippi ought to find another country to be part of, and the book American Insurrection by William Doyle (2001) details that such was their intent as well. One of the help comments that they are in Hell, but the film balances the suffering: whites don’t have it easy either. The murder of Medgar Evers in this film is balanced by the murder of white John Kennedy: the black and white photo of Abilene’s son who died because the whites-only hospital would not take him and the colored hospital couldn’t save him is over powered by the color photo of the smiling murdered president. Ah, we all lost people in the struggle, didn’t we? No, this film suggests that the Civil Rights Struggle was a liberal white endeavor, and the help needed white help. 
Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears.


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