Modern day "Help" still facing hard times

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I have to confess that when I first saw the trailer for The Help, I turned to my best friend and said, “I’d watch it.” The release date loomed near and my roommates and I made plans to watch the movie. In an effort to remain relatively unbiased, I avoided all of the reviews that had piled up since the movie’s inception. I entered the theater with red vines, an icee, and a willingness to like the film. I didn't.

The book, the movie, the countless efforts to get me to cry were all in vain. I walked out of the theater feeling indifferent and glad that I only paid five dollars to see it. Both of my roommates gushed about the tear-jerking scenes and the characters that they loved. At some point I fell asleep for nearly fifteen minutes. When I closed my eyes, Emma Stone was speaking in her most subtle of Southern accents and not as freakishly tall as the book had promised her character would be. When I opened my eyes, the Black womyn were still oppressed, the white womyn were still oppressive, and the men were still nowhere to be found. Needless to say, I didn’t miss a thing.

Initially, I thought it would be wrong to dislike this film. Somehow it seemed counter-intuitive to not sing the praises of a movie about Black maids finding their voice in Jim Crow era Mississippi. Fortunately for my guilty conscience, that is not what this movie is about. The movie tells the story of a young white womyn in 1960s Mississippi who risks her social position (while the maids risk their lives) compiling a book of the stories of maids in her hometown of Jackson. It has become a Hollywood tradition to recount the tale of the white protagonist rallying all the people of color to save them. The irony lies in the fact that the Civil Rights movement was about creating change, yet movies like The Help that occur during the Civil Rights era are not nearly as revolutionary. This trope of a white savior figure is an investment in white supremacy and antithetical to any movement intended to empower people of color. The power of this version of history is that it acts as inoculation. An audience sees just enough of oppression that it can become immune to it and think that it no longer exists. 

Beyond finding the plot and characters less than nuanced, I found this film and book most irritating because it was falsely touted as the voice of domestic workers. The book was written by a white womyn who grew up in the South and was affluent enough to have a maid. The screenplay was written by a white man. This begs the question, who gets to tell the story? I understand that both works are fictional, but they lacked an examination of privilege. I think both authors treated privilege like a sweater you can take off and put on at will. The idea of them creating Black voices as if it were some sort of writing exercise is an appropriation of culture and inauthentic. There are plenty of examples of Black womyn and other domestic workers of color writing and telling their own stories, but these are not the ones hitting the box offices or topping the bestseller list. So, the larger question is what stories will you choose to consume?
The film discussed the plight of domestic workers as a thing of the past. However, conditions for domestic workers have changed very little. 

Today, the domestic workforce consisting of mostly womyn and immigrants is still subject to daily abuses because they don’t enjoy the same basic rights as other workers. Most labor and employment laws discriminate against domestic workers. In fact, they are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. California has an opportunity to remedy this injustice by passing the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. The bill is currently in suspense, but if passed will provide domestic workers with equal overtime pay, equal right to worker’s compensation, equal right to reporting time pay, right to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep under adequate conditions, and the right to cook one’s own food. If you’d like to see domestic workers who are organizing themselves and raising their own voices check out and support the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.
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