August 24th, 2011 – The Help Backlash: A Lesson on Perspectives, Race Relations and Hollywood

I dedicate this post to my mother, Christine Jones Logan, who turned 83 on August 14th.  She is one of the many Aibileen’s and Minny’s who spent half of their days caring for other families before riding the bus home to take care of their own.

Mom had shoulder surgery this year but she's doing well for 83 years old.

As a life coach, one of the tools we value is perspective.  We stand at a distance from our clients, observing their inner and outer worlds, looking for information to help them achieve their goals.  It means we have to heavily rely on our knowledge and intuition to assist us.  And we take all of the information we observe and sort through it for clarity to assist the client in making sound choices and decisions.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become intrigued by all of the discussions, commentaries and opinions about The Help, both book and movie versions.  Even before the movie was released a few weeks ago, there were already glowing reviews and high praise for the actors.  There’s even talk about an Oscar nomination for Viola Davis who plays Aibileen in the movie.

Octavia Spencer as the feisty Minny and Viola Davis as the strong Aibilene

When the book was released in 2009, I observed all of the accolades but also noticed a backlash.  Although readers and book critics loved it, others didn’t.  While many of my White friends expressed nothing negative about the book, many of my Black female friends expressed feelings of discomfort, frustration and even anger.

The backlash has everything to do with perspective.  The author, Kathryn Sockett, and the main character, Sookie, happen to share the same view.  Both are witnesses to the treatment of colored maids in Southern society homes.  And the intention is to shed a light on the disrespect and racism just as the Civil Rights movement is heating up.   

The backlash?  From the perspective of many modern-day African-American women, there’s a feeling of resentment towards both book and movie..and the author.  How can a person who did not endure suffering know what that feels like?  How can a White author write, in detail, what it was like to be a “Colored” domestic before, during or after the Civil Rights movement?

There’s also the perspective of African-American writers, many of whom are women also.  These are authors who have endured another type of suffering.  They travel the process of writing about our perspective but their words don’t get published.  Or their books are published but do not receive the same level of support as their Caucasian counterparts.  For example, many African-American authors are dismayed by the recent filing for bankruptcy by Borders.  Amongst the big chains, Borders was a big supporter of works written by Black authors.

With all of the discussion about the book and movie, I took a small diversion from my normal path on the day the movie was released.  As I was traveling through the Brookside area, I drove down the street where my mother worked as a maid during the late 60’s and early 70’s.  I wanted to revisit my own perspective of what I remember from that experience.

In contrast to the maids’ children in the book and movie, I sometimes went to work with my mother.  Unless my recollection is incorrect, I always felt the familes she worked for, and their neighbors, respected and perhaps even loved my mother.  I played with the children, went to the country club to swim…I even remember a Christmas gathering at our home. 

But things weren’t always rosy.  As all kids do, there were arguments and disagreements between us.  And did my mother suffer indignities once or twice during all the years she worked as a domestic?  I’m sure she did…and that is her story to tell.  I can only tell mine. 

I’ve only been called a n—-r twice in my life.  The first time occurred in the 1st grade as the only Negro child in the class.  The second time occurred a few years later when I went to work with Mom in that same neighborhood.  On one particular day, my mother had brought my bike along so I could ride it up and down the block.  Another maid had done the same for her son.  We had stopped for a moment and as we did, a car with a couple of young white guys drove by us.  One of them shouted, “GO BACK TO YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD, N—-S!”  This was now the second time in my life that word was said to my face.  First, I was shocked and then hurt.  But I looked at my friend (I’ll call him Eddie) and he looked at me.  It’s unclear in my head who said it, me or him, but we basically brushed it off because “this is our neighborhood”.  Even at our young ages, even at that time of social change, we felt that guy was not talking to us.  That word didn’t describe us and we were in our neighborhood.

Some lessons we can learn from The Help backlash:

  • Electing an African-American president is a major achievement in our national history, as well as, African-American history.  But racism is a part of our history, our present and unfortunately, our future.  If we had truly learned from our past, race would not be an issue in politics, employment, education, etc.  The movie is simply a reminder of where we were and perhaps a warning to us now. 
  • Major Hollywood studios want blockbuster films with big budgets and big box office pay off.  Stories are sometimes re-written and films even re-shot in order to create a happier ending, (i.e. “the feel good movie of the summer”).   The movie, The Blind Side, is a classic example.  In its essence, the story is about a young Black man who is “adopted” by a wealthy White family, The Twouys, to give him a better life.  As a result, he goes on to become a professional football player.  The movie was based upon a book, not written by Michael Oher, but written about Michael Oher.   Once Hollywood optioned it, Michael’s story changed even more.  So much so, the Twouys decided to write their own book – from their perspective.  And just this year, Michael decided to publish his side of the story.   (FYI – There was a racial backlash to this movie, too.) 

    Footballer Michael Oher and the Twouy's

  • A large portion of African-Americans are frustrated with how we are depicted on screen.  Historically accurate stories or dramatic stories don’t fare as well at the box office as the comedies many describe as “buffoonery and coonery”.  But none of this will change until we, as African-Americans, change.  When we begin placing more support behind a more balanced portrayal of us in films, change will take place.

    Described as a "hip When Harry Met Sally", love jones is still a popular African American film. Released in 1997, it earned $12.5 mil at the box office and spawned a hit soundtrack. When Harry Met Sally grossed $92 mil...and a hit soundtrack too.

  • Finally a lesson on perspectives.  When I teach creative writing, there’s an exercise I use on perspective.  Participants are shown a picture.  It’s usually a photo or painting with lots of detail, color, etc.  I then ask several students to describe what they see.  One person may focus on a lady in the boat.  Another student’s attention may be drawn by a child with blonde hair.  Neither student is wrong about what they see.  They are just describing the view filtered through their own unique experiences.

With the release of the movie, many comments have been printed or stated in the media by those who refuse to see it.  I’m not sure if this is the right stance to take – judgement without evidence doesn’t seem fair to me.  Everyone has the right to tell their version of the story, even if it differs from our own.  And hopefully, somewhere in there lies a central truth we all share.  In this case, we should all be able to agree, from any perspective, that mistreatment of one individual or group by another should not be tolerated. 

Blessings,

Carlton

We are each burdened with prejudice; against the poor or the rich, the smart or the slow, the gaunt or the obese.  It is natural to develop prejudices.  It is noble to rise above them.  ~Author Unknown

The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.  ~Ralph W. Sockman

Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences.  No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.  ~Edward Roscoe Murrow, 31 December 1955

 

 

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2 thoughts on “August 24th, 2011 – The Help Backlash: A Lesson on Perspectives, Race Relations and Hollywood

  1. Nicely written and very thoughtful….and balanced. Well done! Also, congratulations to your mother on her birthday–

    Ed S.

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