Sunday, November 6, 2011

No Help At All

No Help

Sometimes I go to see a film but I already know in my heart that it's bad. Still, I see it because I want to have it in my arsenal to be able to critique and complain about it with intense, haughty authority. First, I had to gather all of my evidence. I read the book. (That's just my thing. If there's a book, I like to read it first to be able to compare the two.) Despite my disappointment, I further tortured myself with viewing the film. Everyone raved about it so I took a leap. (My intuition screams, "No".) I saw it, partially hoping that the director would save it, secretly hoping that he wouldn't. (I have a dark side.) Maybe I did this because both were loved so much and I like to be able to tell anyone who likes it that not only are they short-sighted but they're being brainwashed into appreciating and perpetuating stereotypes. This is not something I normally do but I had a connection to the characters and I couldn't leave it up to main stream media to include my perspective in their telling of this little story. This undeservedly loved film had tapped me on my shoulder and like Lot's Wife, I turned to look.
My very first introduction to 'The Help' was the trailer where I spotted one of my favorite actors, Academy Award nominated Viola Davis. She's the reason I paid this film any attention at all, really. My excitement that she had a film about to debut coincided with my distaste that the character she was playing is a maid. I told myself that she would and could make this enjoyable. She led me to this book/film combo like the smell of fried chicken leads me to Popeyes. All of the media promotion touted Emma Stone as the lead. At the time I didn't know any better. Hollywood sure loves those twenty-something starletts. They feast on them. No slight to Emma Stone but at this point, I now know differently.
Now, let's get to the particulars of why I don't like this film. At first glance, it's another movie where upon a white character is placed in the role of hero and comes in and saves the day of the poor downtrodden blacks. (Let me interject here that I am of the generation where I use the words "white and black" to describe these races. It may not be politically correct but it's what I grew up with. It's less of a mouthful.) In this classic layout set in the early 1960's, the white character, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), a recent college graduate, returns home and finds a job as an advice columnist for a local Jackson, Mississippi newspaper. She is supposed to respond to household cleaning queries sent in to the paper. What happens is that she knows nothing about cleaning but knows plenty of ladies who do, so she enlists the help of the only one of those ladies she feels comfortable talking to, Aibileen. Aibileen (played by Viola Davis) is the maid of her childhood friend. I don't want to give too many spoilers but it has to be done. So, here goes. Aibileen agrees to, basically, spoon feed her the responses. In these exchanges, Aibileen reveals a more personal side to herself and Skeeter snatches an idea of a book from this. Aibileen agrees (again) to help Skeeter with that stolen idea and becomes the major proponent that induces other maids to join in on this "collaboration", thereby creating the book, 'The Help', a personal account of the black maids and what it's like for them to work for white families. This, in my humble opinion, is why Viola Davis is really the lead in this film.
I can't decide if I'm more disappointed in the misplaced praise of Skeeter in the actual movie OR the fact that in 2011 black actresses are still playing maids to get work OR the lack of outpour/outrage from the public over the latter OR that despite all that, the movie is a hit by Hollywood standards (Those standards being 118 million dollars at the box office so far.) indicating that the public loves and is comfortable with us in this role. As a chubby, middle-aged black woman, I feel like this stereotype should be played out by now. In 1939 Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to get an Academy Award. It was for her role as "Mammy" in 'Gone With the Wind'. Mammy was a maid also.
Films have a huge impact on society. They not only entertain but they set trends, they teach, they inspire, they open our minds to new possibilities, they impact the populace in a multitude of ways. But for the chubby, black women they're still singing that same old Negro spiritual. To that I say, "O lawd, I needs me a new job."
By the way, I just found out that another Academy Award nominated, black actress, Gabourey Sidibe, has a new film coming out next year called 'The Heist'. She's playing a maid. :(

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