There is an old African saying, made popular again by the excellent Somali rapper K’naan, which says, “Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will always favour the hunter”. I take this to mean if you are not writing your own history, you can’t be sure that your side of the story will be told.
Last Sunday, I went to the Haymarket to watch The Help, Dreamwork’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller which looks at the lives of black maids in 1960s Mississippi.
I am 42 year-old British black man of both African and Caribbean decent, and I’ve always been interested in stories about what oppression is like from the point of view of the oppressed.
I knew that The Help was written by a white author but that was about the sum of my knowledge before watching.
I was fascinated by the story of these black maids, who are so often portrayed in a two-dimensional way in films and literature. Long before Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939), black female house staff had been portrayed as loyal, kind-hearted but slightly dim-witted women, who will run a home, cook amazing food and clean like their lives depended on it.
My mother was a nurse and I am as proud as she is about the contribution she made to this country for over 40 years. But the ghost of Mammy lives on in some small way in the image of the kindly, belly-laughing, heart of gold black nurse, who just loves to care for people and doesn’t need much in the way of decent wages or benefits.
The Help is the story of a white junior journalist from Mississippi who encourages a group of black maids to tell their stories of life under rich white roofs and so-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws. They were in place for almost a century in some parts of the US and defined how black and white people interacted once slavery was abolished.
This was the era of that great lie: ‘separate but equal’. A system which was, of course, a protective shield for a startled white population who wanted to be sure that newly-freed black people could not climb too high socially.
Jim Crow laws were, in effect, America’s apartheid laws.
The Help certainly has its moments of humour, sweetness, triumph and engagement. It was well acted, with Emma Stone as white maverick journalist Skeeter and Octavia Spencer as uppity black maid Minny giving particularly strong performances. But when the credits rolled, I was left disappointed.
It felt like I had sat down to eat steak and had been served beans on toast — perfectly valid food but with none of the complex tastes and textures I’d been expecting.
Viola Davis, who plays the maid Aibileen, said she was dubious when she started reading the book, “because a white woman was writing what I felt was our story, and once again she’s going to get it wrong and she’s only going to skim the surface.”
She says once she read on she was won over by the ‘deep humanity’ of the characters.
Not everyone was so flexible though. In a statement after the US launch of the film, the Association of Black Women Historians said they found, “it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”
The Help has even been described as racist by some commentators — which is, of course, going too far. If I choose to tell the story of a Jewish wedding through my experiences as a black man, that isn’t racist, that’s just a different perspective.
The same is true of The Help. Despite the well-written script and good insights into the attitudes and prejudices of the white Mississippi wives, I couldn’t help feeling I’d just watched yet another black film which tells its story from the perspective of a white saviour.
From Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) to Irving Blitzer in Cool Runnings (1993), it always seems that the best hope downtrodden black folks have is that some fearless white hero will come to their rescue and pluck them out of whatever particular hardship they are going through.
Matthew W. Hughley, from Mississippi University, in his 2010 essay The White Savior Film and Reviewers’ Reception*, wrote:
“The genre features a group of lower-class, urban, nonwhites (generally black and Latino/a) who struggle through the social order in general, or the educational system specifically. Yet through the sacrifices of a white teacher they are transformed, saved and redeemed by film’s end.”
For a film to work for mainstream audiences the perceived wisdom seems to be that the stories of ethnic minorities need to be told through the lens of a character white audiences can relate to. Using the white saviour ploy allows a white audience to watch a film about oppression, even with white oppressors, and align themselves with the good white person and black ‘victims’.
OK, you might argue that it doesn’t really matter if this film chooses to tell the tale of a white woman’s perception of black people. You would be right, but when I remember the roster of films in recent years that follow this formula I get a little concerned.
The seemingly endless list includes: Conrack (1974), Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Sunset Park (1996), Amistad (1997), Music of the Heart (1999), Finding Forrester (2000), Hardball (2001), Half-Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), The Blind Side (2009).
Although there are many fine film makers of all races who, to paraphrase Atticus’s famous words, “understand a person because they’ve climbed inside his skin and walked around it”, it still too often seems to fall to writers from minority backgrounds to tell the story from the viewpoint of the black or ethnic minority protagonist.
I remember as child watching Roots, the 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s epic tale of black modern history in the west from slavery to the modern day, and being stunned to see such a moving story done through the eyes of those people who looked like me.
In the end, these stories can be told by anyone — but it is hard to write authentically about a life you have not lived or even been close to.
*The White Savior Film and Reviewers’ Reception, Matthew W. Hughey, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Summer 2010), Published by: University of California Press on behalf of theSociety for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.
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