I’m back. I love updating this blog way too much to leave it unattended for long. I’ve been on the go lately, too wrapped in “real life” affairs to keep up with the latest film releases or pop culture critiques. One thing, however, that has captured my attention is the media frenzy surrounding the upcoming release of the film adaptation The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, and directed by Tate Taylor. Since I haven’t read the book or seen the film, my thoughts will be limited to a certain trend I’ve noticed (although it’s not new), in film and television. Stories centering on, or involving black characters in the midst of pivotal, oftentimes turbulent historical periods seem to be best received, especially in a commercial/mainstream sense, when whites author them. As stated previously, this is not something new. It’s been happening since The Birth of a Nation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Cleopatra.
There is a glamorization that comes with the authoring of these stories. A glamorization that comes at the expense of the riveting truths that exist in their source material. I recall being on a film festival panel in San Francisco when the issue of whether to accept a short film dealing with slavery, came up. One judge was adamantly against the short film because he believed we were “past that” as African Americans and needed to “move on.” As I progressed as a filmmaker and documentarian, I came to see that “we moved past that” mostly when it came to black filmmakers wanting to make films about these events, but not when white filmmakers did.
Somehow, in this idealized present we’ve moved past that. In this present moment when an innocent black man can be shot dead and his murderer go free soon after. Or how about the present moment where a black mother is jailed for enrolling her child in a better school district? Clearly, we have not gotten past it, lest we wouldn’t enjoy and flock to see films that provide some glamorized, safe portrayal of who we are. A film and book like The Help functions perfectly in this way because it allows people to feel comfortable with systems of privilege and injustice that have plagued this country since its inception.
Both my grandmothers worked in the domestic sphere during the same time period this book and film take place. They could be considered “the help.” My maternal grandmother used to clean the house of a wealthy white family that kept black people’s severed toes and fingers in a pickle jar on their mantle. My paternal grandmother, a well-read scholar and theologian was made to care for white woman’s children and even breastfeed them, even though she had 12 of her own. My grandmothers endured the trauma of these situations, still maintaining integrity and resistance in their everyday lives. These are the women that I want to know about. These are the scenes I want to see. These are the women that I want to watch on the screen, and write into captivating screenplays that get made into films. But my lingering question here, is do other people want to see them? When our history is not made into some glamorized vehicle to lessen the impact of racism and white privilege historically and currently, will we want to see that film? Will studios want to green light that film, written and directed by a black woman, and a self-professed descendant of the very women we watch in The Help? Will my people go to the theater to see that film?
These are questions I ask as I observe the fervor around such films as The Help, Django Unchained, and even The Blindside– all films made by white directors that inevitably helped the stories get recognized and seen by masses of people. So, sadly, the answer to some of the questions I posed is no. As an independent filmmaker, I am fully aware of the avenues I must take in order to tell the stories I feel passionate about, and those avenues many times don’t intersect with mainstream, Hollywood inclusion. Recently, I watched Titanic on TV and wondered to myself, could there ever be a film as epic as this that dealt with another massive, water-based trauma- The Middle Passage? Could there be as much interest and tears flowing in the theater if a black filmmaker released a film about black people, surviving amidst insurmountable obstacles on a voyage that signaled the development of the United States as we know it? (The closest things to it would be Haile Gerima’s 1993 film Sankofa or Alex Haley’s TV-miniseries Roots). I hold no ill feelings toward Titanic or The Help, and don’t refute the argument that movies must be entertaining to draw in audiences, but I also know what’s been continually sacrificed when our stories are not afforded the same weight as others. My grandmothers were heavily affected by their time as domestic “help.” These events left indelible marks on how they’d come to see the world and how it received them as black women. While I’m sure they may have had some pleasant moments, that was not the full picture. So, the movie I would write wouldn’t be a heart-warming comedy/drama where black nannies cracked jokes and then went home. It’d be a riveting, suspenseful drama that placed them at the center of the story, as human beings. I just hope people would want to see this story, and that I would be able to make it.
I’m not sorry to say, but we haven’t moved past this.