Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.

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