Sunday, August 14, 2011

why I don't like 'the help'

I was expecting to not like The Help (the movie about African American domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi) very much, but I liked it a little bit better than that. I came away with mixed feelings. As any review of the movie will tell you, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play the two main characters, are exceptional. Between them they carry the movie. The rest of the cast is pretty two-dimensional, with the exception of Allison Janney, who portrays a cancer stricken woman in her 50s, who admits to not having been a very courageous white person in 1950s and 1960s Mississippi.

To me that was refreshing to hear. Most people who live through difficult times are not courageous. I think we all like to think that had we been Germans during Hitler's time, things would have turned out differently because we would have stood up for our Jewish neighbors, and the Nazis wouldn't have been able to do what they did. We like to think that had we been white in the segregated South the civil rights movement would have had an easier time, because we would have stood up for the Blacks.

The truth is that we, most people, would have done exactly what most people always do: Nothing. We wouldn't have been brave, we wouldn't have wanted to risk our jobs, or our family's safety. We would have been more concerned with appearances than with politics.

What I dislike about movies like The Help is that they make it look easy. As white Americans we can watch that movie and imagine ourselves being the young writer, the young woman who takes it upon herself to tell the stories of the Black domestic workers. We don't imagine ourselves where most of us would have been: playing bridge in the front room, wearing pearls, heels, and fake smiles, while our Black maids raise our children for us.

If you don't agree with me, if you think that you are an exception, and that you would have been brave in the 1960s, let me ask you this: Who are you standing up for now? How do you show bravery today?