The Help is a well-made film. I knew that it had impacted me in a very visceral, emotional and deep way when, as I cut out in the middle of the film to go the restroom, I saw two white men at the sink.
Immediately, I thought what it would have been like to walk innocently into a forbidden restroom and have to fight my way out. Standing here in Georgia, the Deep South, I wondered what would have been the consequence for violating a cultural prohibition such as drinking from a “white” water fountain and then sit in the house bracing for the Klan or White Citizens Council to bust in the door of my house to administer a violent, on-the-spot mauling for forgetting “my place,” something like what happened in Mississippi Burning. I also thought of Emmit Till.
I wondered aloud if I would have had the courage to walk through the blood-stained streets of Mississippi and Alabama like Congressman John Lewis did, knowing that a brutal, painful pummeling awaited me that I might not walk away from — or even live through. Or would I have possessed the type of get-back temperament that would have incited me to grab the shotgun like the Deacons of Defense or the Black Panthers and curse the air that all white people breathed like the early Malcolm X did?
More than that, I shuddered at the abject helplessness and lack of recourse that any of the black maids had in response to the vile, vicious and dehumanizing treatment they received from their white employers. It was disheartening knowing that so many Southern blacks toiled in back-bending, spirit-depleting, soul-sapping servitude for soulless, God-less white people who treated black people worse than rodents even as they raised their children whom loved the maids, whom then grew up to also sneer at blacks simply because they breathed too much for their comfort. A funnel cloud of emotions ripped through me as I understood how vastly underpaid, undervalued they were and how those whites snickered at them because they wanted to better themselves. But then those same whites would condemn blacks if they did not better themselves.
Most of all, my temperature climbed past 100 when, in a display of supreme hypocrisy, the white woman absolutely praised a maid for her spectacular cooking while simultaneously demonizing and degrading her. All in the same breath. Why was I so disturbed by that scene in The Help? Because I realized that the country hasn’t really changed at all in that manner. Our talents have traditionally been swallowed up in the capitalistic jaws of America. The history of whites and blacks in this country is one of falling in love and taking and hoarding what black people produce but being repulsed by the producer. That’s why a song could go No. 1 on the pop charts back then, as long as it had a white face on the cover. And today, unquestionably, hip hop and urban vernacular has long since penetrated popular culture from Athens, Ga., to Athens, Greece, and even in Shanghai and Tokyo. But they are still reviled by our very presence, horrified when we move into their neighborhoods and have exemplified unprecedented disdain when a black man dared to occupy the White House. They’ve figured ways to amass fortunes from our brilliance while erecting barriers and loopholes to keep us away from it.
Corporations spend billions in ads every year peddling their products in our faces to get at blacks’ trillion-dollar combined economy. But Madison Avenue resembles 1950s Mississippi because there is scarcely a black face in management at any ‘mainstream’ advertising industry anywhere — and the black ad agencies, like the maids in the movie The Help, are mostly left to eat the leftovers. We’ve more than demonstrated our talents by coming up with innovative fashion designs, but where are the African Americans in management on Fifth Avenue? There are books that detail how “Blaxploitation films” saved major Hollywood studios that were sinking in the 70s. But the black filmmakers were quickly discarded like trash when the bigwigs regained their feet with the black profits and not a single black man or woman can green-light a motion picture in 2011. Blacks go to the theaters in inordinate numbers – African Americans are Tinseltown’s most loyal customers — but we can’t get more than a couple of predominantly African American projects by filmmakers and casts distributed per year.
And don’t even get me started on the laws of education in Mississippi, as detailed in The Help, and the comparison to the criminal educational system today, an underfunded muddled mass heap that fails miserably, providing a well-oiled slippery slope into the prison-industrial complex. Who needs to hang a black man anymore when you have the bloated colossus, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, digesting black men like French fries?
Seeing The Help reminds me of a speech I heard over 20 years ago.
“The country is not happy with black advancement. The county is not happy with a black man who says ‘I want to be president’. The country is more contented to see us in our ‘traditional roles’: As a football player. ‘Oh here he is. Isn’t he magnificent? Look at his muscles!’” Minister Louis Farrakhan mocked derisively during a Blacks in Government speech. “To deal with a black man or woman who thinks distorts and disturbs their mental picture of what a black man and woman is suppose to be.”
Don’t misunderstand me. The Help was a very well made movie with outstanding performances, which explains why it’s the No. 1 movie in America and easily passed the $100 million mark in box-office receipts during the last week of August 2011. But my uneasiness and queasiness exiting the theaters is that I understand the nation hasn’t really changed since those days. –terry shropshire