Go back to Part II.
When I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I ran into a black gay friend of mine I hadn’t seen for years, Darren, and his white partner. I had just come out Rise of the Planet of the Apes with mine. The four of us exchanged greetings and introductions, two interracial couples, and, in anticipation of this piece, I bought a ticket and joined them in line for The Help. Adam told me as we waited for the film to start that the book was so good that he had literally considered taking off work the day he started in order to finish. When the movie was over and we compared notes, my friend asked me what I thought, and I told him I thought the film was ludicrous. Adam looked slightly wounded, and without looking at me again turned to my friend and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I followed them into the lobby and at one point Adam and I were alone when Darren realized he’d left his bag in the theater. As we stood there in what now felt like hostile silence, Adam very decidedly focused on his phone. When I asked him, “What did you think of the movie?” he shrugged without looking up and said, indifferently, “It was good.”
I left the theater despising him, myself, and The Help. I felt degraded by the whole experience, right down to the shit in the chocolate pie, and thought, “The men and women who fought in the Civil Rights Movement deserve better than a movie that goes down as easy as popcorn, and is pretty much forgotten when you hit the street.” As I walked up Broadway before catching the subway, I tried to repair my memories. I thought about my friend, Iyatunde Folayan (LaTrice Dixon), and her film My Grandmother Worked – detailing her experience one year as a nanny, and the two generations of white children her grandmother raised. I thought about the black women I’ve seen in the almost twenty years I’ve lived in New York, taking care of white children on the Upper West Side, and gossiping together in the park, the articles written about their being underpaid, underfed, dealing with sexual advances and temper tantrums from employers, even violence. I remember asking myself so many times, particularly when they became aggressive with the kids in their charge, Why would you lowball someone’s salary, abuse them, and then entrust your child to them? I wondered if the employers felt they knew these women at all, and what were the women’s private thoughts about the children they raised.
I remembered the song “Pirate Jenny” by Bertolt Brecht, and what a different timbre it took on when Nina Simone sang it:
“You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking.
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.”
How could I see myself in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and feel completely absent from The Help? (There are no black men in The Help except for a grinning preacher, a benign soda jerk, and a husband heard over the phone.) The Help, cleverly and conveniently, gives Minny the young children in the film, while Aibileen has only a grown son who has died as a result of racist indifference. By not giving Aibileen daughters, the viewer is spared the kind of devastating scene found in Toni Morrison’sThe Bluest Eye, as the young black girl Pecola is humiliated by her mother, whom she calls Mrs. Breedlove, in front of the white girl her mother works for (and who calls Mrs. Breedlove by her first name, Polly.) Pecola accidentally tips over a pie her mother has baked for the white family. Morrison writes,
“In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor…’Crazy fool…my floor, mess…look what you….work…go on out….now that….my floor, my floor….my floor.’
“The little girl in pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. “Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh, Lord, look at your dress. Polly will change it.” She went to the sink and turned up water on a fresh towel. “Pick up that wash and get on out of here, so I can get this mess cleaned up.”
Mrs. Breedlove comforts the frightened white girl, and Pecola lets herself out while taking the family’s laundry home. It’s a grotesque and horrifying scene, and anything like it in the film would shatter The Help and its romance.
When I got home, I watched Jesse Jackson, in his 1984 speech for the Democratic National Convention, address the audience with memories from his childhood:
“People say, ‘Jesse, you don’t my situation.’ I understand….They see me running for the White House, (but) they don’t see the house I’m running from…
“My mother, a working woman, so many days she went to work early, with runs in her stockings…she knew better, but she wore runs in her stockings so my brother and I could have matching socks and not be laughed at at school…at three o’clock on Thanksgiving day we couldn’t eat turkey, because Mama was preparing somebody else’s turkey at three o’clock, we had to play football to entertain ourselves, and then around 6 o’clock she would get off the bus and we would bring up the leftovers and eat our turkey, leftovers, the carcass, the cranberries; I really do understand.”
Loving ain’t easy. James Baldwin once said, “We try to treat people like the miracles they are while protecting ourselves from the disasters they have become.” As Americans, white and black, some of us are trying to have – have succeeded in having – loving relationships, despite the brutality of the past. And sometimes we are scared, and confused, and searching, and guilt isn’t the answer, honesty is. And art, when it is authentic, when it is truthful, can lead us. When it lies, or withholds, strictly to make money or to reassure, then it betrays us.
There is love in Viola Davis’ performance, and Emma Stone’s as well, but it simply isn’t enough. This period in our history had women and men, both black and white, who were brave, many of whom lost their lives; and they, and we, deserve a whole lot better than the bullshit science-fiction found in The Help. And if there’s a choice between the unreal, pastel-colored South of the film and its paternalistic treatment of blacks, and the movie “reality” of primates who have the courage to liberate themselves, then I’ll stand with the apes.
Go back to Part II.
Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.
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