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Guilty Pleasures, Taking Sides

Why I’m Not Boycotting The Help

As a young Black woman, I heard two messages this summer regarding The Help: Go see it! or Boycott that shit! What to do…what did I do? Well, I do what I always do. No matter what other people tell me to do. I didn’t go at all. I never go to the theatre. They’re too expensive. You see, I grew up in an era where movie tickets were than less than $6.00 a pop for night showings. Concessions were more expensive than the tickets themselves (apparently that’s still the case) so we’d hit up the Harris Teeter and stock up on candy bars. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Sherlock Homes on New Year’s Day and almost stroked out when I saw the ticket price. $11.50 for an afternoon show. Thank God I had a gift card.

I wanted to see The Help. I still do, even more so now that Viola Davis was nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award in what I’m certain was a remarkable performance. And I’m going to purposefully go out of my way and trek over to the public library to find reserve a copy on DVD to effectively take a stand with those in support of the movie (unless of course I hate it.)

On the side of those crying out, “Boycott that shit!” I somewhat understand. When Blacks made their debut on Hollywood screens, they were typecast into stereotypical roles. You know, they were maids and mammies — or prostitutes. Here we are in 2012, Viola Davis, an incredible actress that hasn’t quite been made into a household name plays yet another “demeaning” role and is nominated for two of the most prestigious acting awards in the land. Hopefully, older generations of Black people everywhere will forgive me for rolling my eyes at them. Because times and things have changed, evident by the fact that Davis’ character in The Help isn’t at all like those initial roles in old Hollywood. (Nor do I believe that domestic work is demeaning. The conditions in Jim Crow south were horrible. But the actual work itself? Cleaning, caretaking, cooking, and using the income to support a family isn’t something to be looked down upon. We could all learn a thing or two from the staff at Downton Abbey.)

If I’m asked to boycott a film, it means I can’t come up with my own opinions and judgments of it. Simply put, that’s ignorant. If there are masses of Black (or white or Brown) people who saw the movie and decided they would never read another novel by Kathryn Stockett because her work sheds unnecessarily bad light on the relations between domestic workers and their employers in Jim Crow South, fine. If anyone saw the film and was disgusted that Chris Columbus took on such a project (and I just love him by the way), then by all means, boycott him. Tate Taylor, the director of the film, is pretty new to the scene (ha ha!), but you could certainly start a movement to blacklist him in Hollywood (if you know the right people). But then that would also mean you’d have to boycott Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for accepting roles in a Blockbuster film, boycott them for trying to live out their dreams, which means there are just two fewer respectable Black actresses in Hollywood who have made the transition to mainstream media and managed to stay there. No one said this was the end of the road for either of these actresses. Let’s see how many lives we can ruin with an effective boycott.

Now, here’s where I get ignorant. You don’t have to engage in homosexual activities to frown upon sodomy, right? So before anyone says you have a right to boycott a film or book before you’ve actually seen the movie or read the book, know that I completely agree with you. But maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe if you want to know what you’re talking about, you should actually know what you’re talking about. Maybe you should have lots of lascivious and lewd sex with a same sex partner while watching The Help and then condemn both the gays and white women who write books about Black women to Hell all in one fatal sweep.

If you’re not laughing by now, you should be. Some people don’t realize how crazy they sound until someone puts their words in black and white and they read it for themselves. As I’ve already stated, I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, but here’s what I know about The Help. Kathryn Stockett, a former journalist, wrote a novel (uh huh, a fiction novel) about a woman who writes a book from the perspective of two Black women who give their experiences of racism as they work for white families as domestic workers. To be honest, it actually sounds boring when I put it that way.

Here’s the uproar (plus my commentary):

She can’t write from the perspective of Black women! (She isn’t. She’s writing from the perspective of a white woman. That woman is writing from the perspective of Black woman. It’s actually quite genius.)

What gives her license to write about Black people as if she knows their inner feelings and understands their plight? (I don’t think the fact that she wrote this book means she knows anyone’s inner feelings or understands anyone’s plight. She can’t possibly. Similarly, I don’t think anyone who creates characters (even those based on people we know) actually knows anything about the group of people they belong to… if they belong to a different culture. When authors sit down to write a story, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the bound book that hardly anyone ever sees. In order for her story to be believable and moving, she had to get it right. Sure, she sat down as a white woman who was raised in the South with a very specific collection of experiences that led her to that point, but she was able to create characters very much unlike her. It’s talent. It’s work. It’s also called being a good novelist.)

Why isn’t the story told from the maid’s point of view? (I’m not sure. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. For the 180th time! But I’m willing to bet it’s because Black domestic workers weren’t writing novels in the 1960’s, which is what I believe is the setting for the book. I could be wrong. Suppose they were, would any white people have read it? (I don’t mean The Help, I mean the novel the main character wrote in The Help). Regardless, that’s a valid point. Maybe you should do some research and devote your life to writing a novel about a woman who writes a novel and then have millions of people question each and every decision you made regarding your artistic and intellectual expression. Good luck!)

Why are Black people always saving Whitepeole? Why do we always have to tell them about themselves? (Oooh! More good questions. In most movies that deal with race relations, one race is almost always saving the other. Take for instance, The Blind Side. We were pretty indignant then, too, if you’ll remember. A white woman taught a Black boy how to play football, saved him from the ghetto, and loved him all the way to the NFL.Is there still an underlying theme of The White Man’s Burden in Hollywood? Do Black people have a burden, too?… I think we have one, too. But that’s another day, another post. I don’t know if this movie is about any one group saving the other,  but if is, that’s okay. “The moreeee we work together, together, together, the moreeee we work together the happier we’ll be.” Maybe we need to save each other. Maybe if you don’t tell me about myself then I don’t feel comfortable telling you about yourself. If no one says, “Erin, you’re insensitive, intolerant, racist and judgmental,” I might walk this life of mine completely oblivious to the idea that there’s another way. I could choose to remain exactly as I am if you bring it to my attention, or I could choose to look at my behavior and see the effects they have on the people I love, my community, and the world at-large. The Help told a story, an incredible story. Do white people need to sit down and talk to their Black domestic workers about what’s going on inside their communities? Probably not. The majority of Black women aren’t maids and mammies anymore, on the big screen or in real life.)

You remember The Color Purple? Here’s a story about Black women in the deep South, their relationship with men, Christinianity, and love. What in the hell does Steven Spielberg know about them, their men, their God, or their lives in Georgia? And I’m not implying that people who were against the production did so because the director couldn’t relate to the story. People boycotted that movie mostly because they didn’t like the story Alice Walker told. Walker wrote a novel that people weep. Everyone cried. Men and women. Blacks and whites. I read the novel for the first time before I saw the production on Broadway back in 2005 and cried four nights in a row. My favorite characters were Mister, Harpo and Sophia; two of them being Black men. I’m not a man and neither is Walker and yet she had the uncanny ability to bring life to the pages through their words and actions. She doesn’t have to be a man to write about them, do them justice, or use them to tell a story.

We should only ask one things from writers, that they do the job they’ve been called to do.Write stories. Develop their craft. Become masters at making us believe it’s all real. If I laugh out loud or wipe a stream of tears from my eyes or stay up until 3 in the morning to finish a book, that is my mark of a job well done. And it speaks all the more of a writer’s talent and commitment to good writing that she can create characters completely unlike herself.

I will never censor art I love. I will never censor art I don’t understand. And I’ll never tell anyone to adopt my beliefs just because of my convictions. I will ask the people to go out and find their own convictions. And I’d start the conversation with Viola Davis (over lunch — her treat):

  1. How do you feel about people’s response to the film?
  2. Did you read the book? Did it stay true to the film?
  3. Why did you decide to do the movie?
  4. Did you like the movie?
  5. Do you think it was the best female performance of the year?

Hopefully that would settle the discussion. A boycott puts people out of work. In addition to censoring art, it’s censoring the livelihoods of writers, directors, actors, producers, production assistants, dogs walkers. Maybe not dog walkers. So don’t speak out against a movie you’ve never seen just because the main character is a Black maid. I, for one, am just glad the Black maid was a main character and that the world recognizes this Black woman as an extraordinary actor with a promising career.

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About Bella

I’m an (almost) 30-something free-lance writer, blogger, genealogist, and friend. Yep. If you pay me, I’ll be your friend. Initial fees are subject to negotiation. You can also contact me about product reviews and ad space. Everything is for sale around here. I make my home in Boston with my roommate, Jane Doe; my 12 year old dog, Chewy; and Jane’s feral cat, Felix. I’m addicted to reading Mormon mommy blogs, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Facebook status updates.

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