Racism Lite

I went to see THE HELP this weekend and left feeling uneasy and wondering how a movie that shows the unrelenting tragedy of a black woman whose son was essentially murdered and who ends up remaining in Jackson, Mississippi hoping to be a writer was really about a rich white girl getting a big publishing job in Manhattan. I'm sorry. I'm sure this film and all the people involved meant well but really, are you kidding? I left the theater surrounded by beaming white people and I thought, "Jesus Christ, a feel good movie about our version of apartheid."

When I was turning 11 in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated right after I read a collection of short stories written by Richard Wright called Uncle Tom's Children. Those stories were brutal and explicit and possibly my parents should have discouraged me from reading about lynchings and murders and people having their skin flayed from their bodies because that skin happened to be black. These black people weren't handed Cokes by nice white ladies or cherished by their white children but set up by white women who winked at them and caused them to be kidnapped and murdered like Emmet Till.

If we're not going to portray a kinder, softer Hitler I think it's time we stop trying to pretend things in this country were better then they were. I was forced to teach The Secret Life of Bees back when I taught English at Evanston Township High School and it never failed to amaze me when the novel ends with an interracial couple walking down the halls of a high school together in the deep south and all that happens is paper getting thrown. My older sister dated a mixed race guy in New Jersey in the early seventies and boys came to our house in the middle of the night and shouted "Nigger Lover". They were burning crosses in Hightstown in the sixties and I worked for someone in the nineties in New York City who explicitly told me he would not interview an African-American candidate for a receptionist.

Worse still is THE HELP'S cowardice. When the main character's mother throws her loyal, long-time maid out of her DAR luncheon, they made sure to focus on how bad she felt about humiliating and abusing the woman who raised her own daughter. She is given a chance at redemption when she banishes the town racist by telling her to get off her land. Of course, the film changed these details from the original book but let's face it, most people won't read the book, they will see the film, feel like they've participated in some sort of group apology for slavery and Jim Crow and congratulate themselves for being good people. Well, read To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved and read Richard Wright. 


Popular Posts