Sunday, September 11, 2016

Speaking for black people

Back in 2011 the movie The Help did quite well and got an Oscar for Viola Davis. The general plot: In Mississippi of the 1960s we see scenes of various black women who work as domestics in white homes and taking care of white children. Skeeter, a white woman just returning from college, befriends several of these maids, who tell her their life stories. She publishes a book of these stories, which sends the town into a turmoil.

I saw the movie in a theater and thought it a good one. My original comments are here, though now they seem a bit off. One scene explained a bit about how power maintains its hold. Skeeter's mother used to employ the maid Constantine. Skeeter wonders what happened to her. At a gathering hosted by Skeeter's mom, Constantine is a bit too forward with the other guests. By this time Constantine is old enough that her daughter is also a maid in the household. One of the guests, a prominent woman in town is offended that Constantine doesn't know her place. This guest demands that Constantine be fired immediately. Skeeter's mom is faced with a choice: stay in the good graces of this prominent woman or protect Constantine, who is almost one of the family since she has worked for them so long. The mom fires the maid, and later tells Skeeter how much she regrets the decision. By that time Constantine had moved away from town.

To summarize the mom's choice, to stay in the good graces of the powerful in town she must perpetrate their oppression.

I've written about power structures and I took note of how a secondary player is pulled in and forced to also be an oppressor (I even used the example above). I could go on at length in how I see power and oppression being played out everywhere from presidential politics to corporations purchasing Congress to do their bidding. A great deal of what I write is about power.

However, today I'll get back to the movie. While white people (at least those who saw the movie) were introduced to an aspect of racism most hadn't considered, or likely never seen. But from the black perspective, the movie may make a good introduction to an aspect of racism, but for accurately depicting their lives – not even close. It perpetrates too many stereotypes.

As many of my posts over the last year have shown, I've learned a lot about how things look from the viewpoint of the oppressed from Melissa McEwen and her blog Shakesville. Last Thursday McEwen posted a Question of the Day asking her readers for their favorite posts from the blog. McEwen started the discussion by listing her own favorites – I'll have a lot to read because many are from before I became a regular reader. One of McEwen's favorites was written back in 2011 by a black woman who uses the screen name of elle. She describes herself as the granddaughter of the help. In it, she explains why she won't waste her time and money on the movie The Help. Here is my summary of elle's major points.

* The movie is more about Skeeter than the maids. Skeeter, a white woman, is the center of the movie. This means the movie will have several things wrong with it.

* With a white woman at the center the black experiences are filtered through the white woman, who wants to maintain she is one of those white people who are "good" to black people.

* With Skeeter at the center, she becomes the heroic white woman who rescues blacks women.

* The movie resurrects the "mammy" – the black domestic who is portrayed as an asexual, loyal, and contented caretaker of white children. She is safe to care for the white kids and because these whites are "good" the maid will remain loyal and thankful for the opportunity. But these women knew their oppression and their oppressors and knew the relationship was not between equals.

* When the white children grow up they remember the maids who cared for them and loved them. But that love was quite different from the love these maids had for their own children.

* The job of a maid was poorly paid. White employers would frequently find a reason to underpay even those meager wages or to demand longer hours.

* There were no benefits. The gov't purposely left domestic labor out of the Social Security system. When they could no longer work, their only option was welfare, contributing to the stereotype of the black woman in search of a handout.

* The movie does feature one family building a bathroom for the maid because the wife of the family doesn't want the maid tainting the family's bathroom (though the maid cleans it). Beyond that (which is essentially played for laughs) the movie spends little time with the emotional abuse the maids had to put up with from their female employers.

* And from their male employers there was frequently sexual abuse. This movie puts the white men in the background. We don't even see the Klansman's robes. Racism has been reduced from societal terrorism to individual acts of petty meanness.

* This use of the mammy stereotype reveals a nostalgia for a time when black women cleaned the White House, not live in it. Successful, self-confident, and happy Michelle Obama is too much for some people.

* The mood of the movie is way too persistently sunny. While it matches the persistently sunny mood of the country and its message of a post-racial society it doesn't fit the dark tone of the lives these maids lived.

* The movie perpetuates racism because it implies it is right that white people speak for black people, that white people get credit for "saving" black people. But compare the risks Rosa Parks took compared to the risks Skeeter's mom took (well, should have taken, but didn't) in trying to keep her maid employed (and oppressed).

McEwen,, in a post of her own, answers the question of why The Help got made. With such a sunny mood, someone is supposed to walk away from the movie feeling better. But who? McEwen replies:
And that's who—the people who tell these stories. The pop novelists, the publishers, the screenwriters, the producers, the directors. They're the ones who want to read/see/hear stories that reassure them that they're good people, artists, not exploitative garbage capitalists who don't recognize the humanity of anyone who makes less than they do.

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