On The Help, Viola Davis, And "Black Art" Vs. "Negro Respectability"

Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”

I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.

I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.

And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.

And that’s where I get mad.

See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.

We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.

And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following:  marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.

Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.

Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious.  Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.

There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”

Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.

And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where  Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.

Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.”  But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.

As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.

If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.

Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain.  I had counseling for the pain.  I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.

But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you).  If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.

So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?

As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.

That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.

For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.

I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun.  This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.

And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday.  (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.

But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North.  I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.

I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”

Child, please.

What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley  on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.

And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?

Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.

No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.

Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.

I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.

But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it.  Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.

I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.

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Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help

Warning: this review contains LOTS of spoilers.:-)

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In 1923, the Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy enlisted the help of Senator John Williams of Mississippi to put forth a resolution to build a national monument dedicated to the Black Mammy. Several prominent leaders of the African American community, including Mary Church Terrell, rallied against the monument and it was never built.

But by that time it was too late: the Black Mammy had been immortalized already in 1912 in another monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the Confederate Memorial. It depicts a “frieze” containing “six vignettes…includ[ing] a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy…”

This is the public image of the Black Mammy, but for many of us, Black and White, we have intensely personal experiences with her.

For me, it was summer, circa 1976, and my family and I were visiting my mother’s mother, Grandma Florence. My sister Sidonie, several cousins and neighbors, and I decide we would integrate the White pool in Eatonton, Georgia. Bolstered by my mother’s donation of 50 cents for each child, we begin to walk across the railroad tracks.

We arrived at the pool, which we discovered was nearly three times the size of the pool we’d been swimming in. As soon as we placed our small Black bodies in the pool, the White children got out, but after a few minutes, one decided to get back in. The little girl spoke to me; she was about 3 or 4 years older.

“You’re related to Florence, aren’t you?” she asks. “You look just like her.”

I had never heard my grandmother’s name without a handle on it. “I am Mrs. Florence James’ granddaughter,” I said.

“Oh, I just love Florence so much! She used to clean house for us. When you go home, tell her ‘Miss Sally’ says ‘hey’.”

I talked to the little girl for a while, not really because I wanted to, but because I wanted her to notice that I kept stressing that my grandma should have a “Mrs.” in front of her first name. I used my most proper tones, but the little girl never took the hint.

This was my first experience with the figure of the Black Mammy, someone who belonged to her employers, whose love is assumed, even required. She doesn’t work for a paycheck. The money is incidental; the real compensation is her pure joy in laboring for her White employers. But she can never be an equal, even to a child. And she was my blood.

I’ve thought on that sunny afternoon many times. I was a child who’d been raised with a sense of my own middle-class entitlement, but in a few seconds, that girl stripped me of that, and reminded me of what my place was supposed to be–beneath her.  She didn’t mean the slightest bit of harm, but she harmed me anyway.

*

Yesterday, I went to see the film, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title, about the friendship in 1960s Mississippi between a privileged White woman and a group of black domestics. There have been several well-known Black entertainers who have endorsed the film, not the least of which is Viola Davis, the actress who plays Aibileen, the main Black character. Filmmaker Tyler Perry loves the film as well.

And there have been individual Black women online who have tried to counter the “bad press” generated by other Black women who have reviewed the movie negatively; both Martha Southgate and Valerie Boyd have been disappointed in the movie in different ways. But other Sisters praise the movie and say that we Black folks need to understand that all stories should be told. We should not be classist, especially about the past.

Yet, I write about working class Black folks and domestics in my own fiction constantly, so in this case, it’s not the story of Black domestics that I resent–or that the story the movie is based on was written by a White woman. And I don’t resent seeing Black women looking unglamorous in frumpy uniforms onscreen. I’m not embarrassed by them. Why should I be, when I’m related to women just like them?

What I resent are the tone-deaf depictions like the ones I saw onscreen yesterday. For example, there are no Black husbands in this film onscreen; there are three Black men in the film, but presumably, all of them are single. Aibileen overhears Minnie’s husband beating her when the two women are on a phone call, but we never see the man. (He’s the only physically abusive domestic partner in the movie, by the way.)

And we never find out who impregnated Aibileen years before and gave her a son. Was Aibileen’s an immaculate conception? Was she once married but now a widow or divorced? Was she abandoned by her son’s father? He’s never mentioned, to my recollection.

There are many historical issues with the film as well. The White husbands of these women are benevolent, fuzzy creatures, yet at this time in Jackson, Mississippi, the White Citizens council (mentioned only once in the film) was in full force, and they were public face of the domestic terrorist group, the KKK. We hear of civil rights activist Medgar Evers’s death, but we don’t see the killing, and there’s a vague “they” who seem to be responsible for Evers’s assassination; but again, there are no fingers pointed at any of the White men we see onscreen.

The meanest person in the film and the person with the most power is a White woman. A woman without a job. And she is cartoonish in her villainy, making it very simple to pretend she’s not real.

This film focuses on giving power to Black women, but none of them can claim that power without White assistance. Martha Southgate already has written eloquently about the fact that Civil Rights was not the purview of White Southerners, but rather Black southerners.  You would never know that by looking at this movie.

Even when Minnie, the other main Black character (played by Octavia Spencer), decides to act alone on her rage, she does so in a way that is (to me) morally transgressive; when her employer fires her, she bakes a pie using her own feces as an ingredient and feeds it to the woman in retaliation. As I sat there in the audience and listened to the guffaws of the White moviegoers at the “feces pie” scene, I could only think, what has become of a woman who gathers her body waste in her actual hands and cooks with it, in her own kitchen? Where were her children while she was stirring up feces? How can she or her home ever be clean again?

For me, it was not the humorous, empowering moment it was intended to be, but rather tragic and pathetic. It made me want to weep for Minnie. And equally as important, if Minnie had ever informed her Mississippi employer of her actions in real life, she would have been strung up and lynched, or at the very least beaten violently.

But the most disturbingly unrealistic aspect of this movie is that we never see the personal lives of the Black women who work as “The Help.” Almost every time they appear on screen, they are either tending to White others, or they are talking about White others’ goings on. To see this movie, one would think that these Black women had no other concerns than the Whites they work for. However, the White women—even the villains—all have personal lives separate from the Blacks’.

For me, the lack of Black female interior life was what angered me the most—that and the lack of any real affection toward Black children in the movie. No Black children were embraced or kissed in this film, while White children were hugged and kissed all the time, the implication being that yes, Black children were emotionally neglected, but this neglect was for the greater good: so that the children of White women could receive it all.

*

There already is Oscar buzz surrounding Viola Davis for her depiction of Aibileen. But I can’t help feeling extremely disappointed in Davis and the other Black women who agreed to act in this film. These are Black women who are plenty old enough to know the history of their foremothers but who either didn’t notice what was wrong in the script, or didn’t speak up—if they had, this would have been a different movie, despite the issues with the book.

And how many Black women who are defending this movie don’t see the serious flaws, either, the glaring historical and emotional anachronisms throughout? Instead, they are bending over backwards to try to understand a continuing legacy of White southern paternalism.

At the very beginning of The Help, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) poses the question to Aibileen, “How did you feel, leaving your own child while you took care of other people’s children?”

That question is never answered.

Aibileen’s son’s life isn’t explored, even in flashback; she only talks briefly about the horrible way in which he died.  We only see his picture. It is as if his only contribution to the movie is to provide motivation for Aibileen’s later actions, after he’s dead. Her mother’s love, her mother’s grief, is condensed into 2 or 3 minutes. And in reality, she doesn’t claim her own voice—as a mother, as a woman, or someone who has her own inner mystery. She has no voice unless someone White is in the room.

Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay.

They just didn’t get it.

Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women who lived in Mississippi in 1963, those women who endured and resisted without “help” and worked in White folks’ kitchens and raised and loved Black children and hoped those children could avoid the lynch mobs to push the next generation to something better.

That story would have been a tougher one to tell–and a tougher one to swallow for a moviegoer who craved the Jim Crow Cliffs Notes; it probably wouldn’t have been funny, but neither was Mississippi in 1963.  But not only did Stockett and Taylor not get those Mississippi Sisters, they didn’t even get the universal human condition. And that’s just a colorblind shame.