Friday, August 19, 2011

A Tale of the Maids

Emma Stone (Skeeter Phelan), aspiring 
journalist/chronicler of the maids' stories
The Help (U.S., 2011) directed by Tate Taylor, ‎2 hr. 17 min.‎

I don't think you could have found a more reluctant moviegoer than myself when my husband suggested seeing this film with our daughter. My reaction was a mixture of distaste and uneasiness. Yet another pious tome about a doe-eyed innocent white person transformed by the wisdom/piety of an oppressed black character (i.e. a "Magical Negro")? No thank you. I was immediately ready to write the film off.

Likely this opinion was hastened by Lynn Crosbie's acerbic August 6th review of the ubiquitous book in the Globe and Mail. Crosbie, an astute, if sharp-tongued, observer of popular culture had witheringly deplored the 2009 book written by Kathryn Stockett which formed the basis of this film. At the risk of comparing apples to oranges - Crosbie examines the book while I am looking at the film - I want to explore some of the issues that Crosbie raises which I think are pertinent in a discussion of the appropriation of voice.

Here is Crosbie's assessment of whether Stockett was even capable of telling this story:
"Stockett, a white Mississippi native, seems, incredibly, unaware of her competition – her novel is not only devoid of any deep insight into black women’s lives, it exists in a cultural vacuum, seemingly oblivious to the impact of black artists and activists of the era she writes about."

Why assume that Stockett is oblivious to the impact of black artists and activists of that era - because she does not explicitly reference them? That's a huge leap of logic.

Crosbie also states that Stockett's dialogue for the black characters in the book "while not racist" demonstrates "stylistic ineptitude". I am unsure if this is true based on the meager sample she provides to us, the readers, in her article. Does Stockett fail miserably or is it that she has no right to try because she is white and Southern?

If you were to postulate that the white writer has no right to make a creative attempt to speak in a black dialect then what are we to make of those who have transgressed the rigid boundaries of gender and racial identity and succeeded brilliantly? Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, William Faulkner's depictions of former slaves, Henry James' character Isabel Archer in A Portrait of the Lady, the many characters of Mark Twain's novels, not to mention the many female writers who wrote under the pseudonyms assuming male personas in their writing?

True, significant black pioneers are but briefly mentioned in the film and the book (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers - both assassinated with Evers murdered in Stockett's home town Jackson, Mississippi where the novel is set); however, this is not their story. It is a fruitless argument to suggest to a writer that the story they have written should have been about this rather than that.

The Maids: Octavia Spencer (Minnie) and Viola Davis (Abilene)

Crosbie makes much of the need for an "authentic" voice - does she mean believable to her? The black female characters demonstrate a convincing terror in the film version. So much may be construed by the look on Abilene Clark's (Viola Davis) face upon hearing that a black man has been shot. They are harshly told by a bus driver that they must vacate the bus and walk home (it is indeed the civil rights activist Medgar Evers who has been shot). Abilene simulates calm as she walks with her black male companion, urging him to go home likely because she fears for him as well. Once they part - they both run like frightened rabbits. It's a terrifying scene.

Or even the simply acted scene where Abilene initially demurs giving Skeeter (Emma Stone) an interview about her work as a nanny and maid for white families. She knows only too well that white people don't truly want to to hear the truth about the black maids' employment.The polite wariness on her face speaks volumes.

And the most affecting scene for me was not that saccharine interaction between Abilene and her small charge, the daughter of her employer Elizabeth, whom she is forced to give up, and which is very consciously trying to pull at our heart strings, but the scene where the maids gather in Abilene's living room (all 31 of them) after steadfastly refusing to cooperate with Skeeter but then embracing the opportunity to speak after a final indignity against one of their own. I found a number of things manipulative in the film but this scene struck at the core of the issue for me.

I was so affected by this that I burst into tears and a kindly woman beside me handed me a much need wad of tissues. The courage an act of this type must have necessitated ... it knocked me out. My resistance to the film completely crumbled away.

When we see the humble living conditions that the maids live in. When we see them take off their straight-haired wigs at night to reveal the corn rows beneath. This speaks volumes about the way black women are viewed, about how blackness is viewed by both white and black society.

Crosbie wants to know "why are blacks always depicted in crisis, almost always punctuated with slapstick"? I sense a larger truth here which I tend to agree with; however, the novelist, the screenwriter, the director, are trying to construct a dramatic story here regarding a tumultuous period which necessitates a certain level of drama, of pathos and of emotion.

I wonder how exciting a story about my middle class black friends would be if we were to mirror the "authentic" nature of their lives: trying to raise a family, working in mundane jobs, church-going, caring for elderly and ill parents, living their day to day lives. True, I am sure there is some Chekovian drama underneath this middle class veneer but the not so distant history of black people in North America, particularly in the Southern U.S., is one of turmoil, of oppression, of difficult choices made. It ain't no party ...

What seems to irk Crosbie the most is the film's tag line: "Change begins with a whisper." She ends her article thus: "And the great American civil rights movement, shouted, not whispered about, at its height, should not be open for revision."

My response to this is that not every piece of fiction based on historical events, even one as horrifying and violent as this one, requires volume or blood to be effective as a piece of art. The film, if not the book, is not a "great" piece of art but it does achieve what many films aspire to: it makes people feel connected to an era that some may have forgotten or minimized merely as a relic of the past. It elicits not only grief for the tragedies of our past but compassion. It touches both the heart and the mind. And that ain't so bad.

For some additional thoughts please see Mary Elizabeth Williams' article on with whom I commiserate!


Roger Knox said...

Yes it is this problem of a reviewer saying the book should have been some other book written by someone else, which is not a fair review.

Michelle said...

This is a tedious and fairly predicatble criticism in reviewers - I think you have to focus on the issue at hand in a film or book. Was it intelligently put togther? Did it respond to a kind of truth in the subject matter? The question is not: why didn't they talk about a) rather than b) ...