Tuesday, August 16, 2011

a whisper of the help

“The Help” is a heartwarming tale of one woman’s journey overcoming 1960′s southern sexism. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (played by Emma Stone) convinces her mother and her town that finding a job can be as fulfilling as finding a man. Tate Taylor’s film–presumably like Kathryn Stockett‘s book, which I have not read–also includes a large sub-plot about black maids serving white families. That is where it gets into trouble: the movie pretends to be about racial justice, but it really isn’t. Its tagline is “Change begins with a whisper,” and it barely whispers about race. Oh, we see the black maids (played exceedingly well by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) get mistreated by their employers, and we do feel some of their pain, but the main emotional arc of the movie is Skeeter’s emerging feminism.

Because it has been advertised as a movie about racial justice, and because we still have hopes for movies that will help us engage the complex issues of race in the USA, some reviewers have criticized the movie for not doing enough.

The Association of Black Women Historians wrote (pdf), “The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” Valerie Boyd, writing at ArtsCriticATL, quotes Attorney Genernal Eric Holder as she names this a “feel-good movie for a cowardly nation” (cowardly on matters of race). Boyd writes, “Skeeter never questions the system itself. She is no civil rights pioneer; she just wants to write a good book.” By the end of the film, Skeeter appears to have an *inkling* of how dangerous it was for the maids she interviewed, but she appears to be little changed by that knowledge. Similarly, the movie audience will have a slightly deeper understanding of 1960s race relations, but will likely be unchanged.

Seeing the maids and their plight on the big screen, even in this partial, sanitized version, is better than not seeing them at all. If this is the next small step along the path to full enlightenment, I guess I won’t fault the director or the author too much. I also applaud the critics for pointing out how much further we have to go.

The Help is well-made and well-acted; although it does not really engage the deepest issues, it does tell a compelling story. It does not have whiz-bang special effects, or grand scenic vistas, so you don’t *need* to see it on the big screen. However, if enough of us watch it at the theaters, maybe more filmmakers will be interested in presenting (yet deeper?!) tales of race and class. Like virtually all mainstream movies, it supports the status quo—in particular, it promulgates the Great American myth that we can always overcome any circumstance, if we just show enough pluck and gumption.

The movie is definitely worth seeing (and talking about, afterwards). If you want to explore the real lives of black domestic servants, here is a list compiled by the ABWH:


Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, by Alice Childress
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight


Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

(full post, with links, at So May We Be)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Laureate Levine

In celebration of Philip Levine becoming the new U.S. Poet Laureate, here is the first poem from his National Book Award -winning collection, What Work Is:

“Fear and Fame”

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes o more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

(full post, with links, at So May We Be)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cowboys, Aliens, Pelagians

Cowboys & Aliens is a decent summer movie, but it loses half a letter grade for bad theology. Director Jon Favreau has a great cast and a serviceable script; the cinematography is lovely and the soundtrack is pretty good. Native Americans are predictably typecast (menacing at first, then loud and chaotic, then generally noble and taciturn; after the dramatic climax, we don’t see them again). The special effects are pretty good; Favreau and his producers know what it takes to create a summer blockbuster-type film. I loved his Iron Man, but that set the bar for me. With its great cast and bold concept, C&A did not quite live up to its potential.

And that theology: at one point in the film, the town’s clergyman says something like, “First, you have to earn God’s presence; then you have to notice it; then you have to act on it.” I agree with the second and third step, but recoil in disagreement and dismay at that first idea. IMHO, the Spirit of Life is present in every being. We may ignore, deny, or even actively work against it, but there is sacred potential everywhere. We don’t have to “earn” it; it renews in us with every pulse of our heart.

So: I give Cowboys & Aliens a “B-” because its popcorn thrills ultimately fall short of its promise, and I subtract another half-letter-grade for bad theology. C+. It’s worth seeing on the big screen, but do have a conversation afterwards: we do not have to *earn* God’s presence.

(apologies to Pelagius–while he did say that we humans *could* work toward goodness by ourselves, even he did not say that we had to)

Full post, with links, at So May We Be.