An elderly white lady reminisces about the 1950s South, with an air of nostalgia.. An old white professor argues that Colonialism brought Civilization to Africa and quips about how they received their independence. Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Must we correct them? Must we accept that their experiences have shaped their perspective and made this their “truth”?
I saw the Help and enjoyed it. This sentence, uttered by a non-white person sounds like an aberration. Let me preface my explanation with this. I believe that we all react to situations and experiences with our own “cultural lenses” or glasses. What I mean is that, our backgrounds and stories along with those of people close to us color the way we react in the face of various situations. These glasses help us form our opinions. They are our Perspective.
Let me take off my glasses for a second so you can see them. I'm an African-born, college-educated young woman living the U.S with no personal stories about Segregation and from the Civil Rights movement. I come from a family of immigrants who have worked (and work) in the U.S as housekeepers, nannies, house cleaners, maids, etc. I've also grown up in a society where domestic workers and relatives often take care of the housework and the children. Finally, I'm a young person who believes in the power of telling and sharing stories.
Two weeks ago, on Wednesday, I heard from a friend (who happens to be white) that she was going to see a movie called The Help and that the book it was based on was “such a good book”. I had not heard about the book before, so I filed it under my mental “Things to check out later” list. On my way home, I stumbled onto an NPR interview with Viola Davis about the upcoming movie. Let me acknowledge my pop culture ignorance by saying that I was not familiar with her. There was something about her voice though that drew me in. Now, I had to see this movie.
I walked in with no expectations, which is how I often like to approach movies. Finding out that it was under a Touchstone Pictures production label (Disney), I imagined that it would be touching, but something that wouldn't “push the envelope” very far. The protagonists and the antagonists would be clearly recognizable.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important”. Even now writing these words, it's hard not to be touched by them. The main message I took away from the movie was that of Courage. Courage to love beyond clearly drawn (and labeled) racial lines. Courage to be defiant even when the consequences risk to be catastrophic. Courage to tell one's story even when around you, everything conspires to shut you up. It was easy to see this thread throughout the movie; those who were courageous on one side, those who were not on the other side.
I went to see The Help because I was curious about the woman whose voice had captivated me during that NPR interview. I ended up watching Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer the whole time. Emma Stone, as “Skeeter”, for me, is a catalyst. I saw The character that sets the “conflict” in the plot in motion. As I watched Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis act (boy, did they act), I saw them as the protagonists and understood that there were two worlds. The one that their employers lived in and in which Skeeter struggled to fit into, and the one in which they lived. Each with their own rules and their own “truths”. I did not see the story that Skeeter, her family and friends told as Truth or Lie. I saw it as Truth from their perspectives. No matter how much the maids answered “yes, ma'ams” to the accusations and condescending (and insulting) statements from their employers, it was obvious that they did not take their words about them as Truth.
There were two stories. The one that was told and articulated and another one that was told, non-verbally. The stories that Skeeter recorded, one could tell, were only the tip of the iceberg. It reminded me of stories that I've heard from my own family members about their experiences working in American homes. Stories about what their employers would say, thinking that they did not speak English. “Truths” that they held about the people taking care of their houses and their children.
At one point in the movie, I thought about Immigration and modern-day nannies and maids from Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, El Salvador, the Phillipines, Guatemala, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Togo and from all the other parts of the world working in the U.S, weaving together the 2 stories: the ones that they see every day at their workplace and the one that they see at Truth...from their perspective. The story-collector in me thought about things that they often leave unsaid, the stories that they would tell.
Even though I enjoyed The Help as a movie, I know that there is plenty to question about the plot. Should a story about Segregation in 1960s South be portrayed in a light way? Is Skeeter's endeavor in capturing these stories an act of heroism or exploitation or the story of a naïve girl who thought she was making a difference? Did the movie do justice to both stories: the “surface story” and the story that is not directly told in words?
I have a feeling debates about this movie will continue in the blogosphere and IRL for quite a while.