Monday, August 22, 2011

Seeing "The Help" and "The Passion of the Christ"

It's been a week now since we went to the theater and saw the film, "The Help." This is my review for what it's worth. Suzanne says the movie is enjoyable if you suspend your disbelief, and she links to a couple of other reviews that point out worthwhile things about the pictureshow. 

It's been a week now.  Since our seeing "The Help," the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came and went.  I'm just bringing this up to get in a quotation by Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, who said for herself the following as a woman and as a colored as a representative of the World's Congress of Representative Women, some 27 years before the 19th Amendment and the equal right of women to vote with men in the United States:
The colored woman feels that woman's cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman's lesson taught and woman's cause won—not the white woman's, nor the black woman's, not the red woman's, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong.
In the film, "The Help," one of the first things you hear, and something you hear repeated, is the main character, Aibileen, saying the following to a young white girl under her care, as a black woman, as one of the help some forty years or so after women in the United States were finally granted the vote:
You is smart, you is kind, you is important.
This is the voice of the black woman, of black women, teaching other women as daughters who some day will later employ their own daughters when both grow up.  We wondered what the young and old African American women in the theater with us in Fort Worth, Texas, USA were thinking.  And there were many, relatively speaking.  At the end of the movie, there was light and not unanimous applause.  One African American couple headed straight to the door before the credits started rolling.

The representations and the misrepresentations got us wondering about the stereotyping.  (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, not a black woman herself, has helped us wonder much; and here's how she has changed her mind and the sensitive and rhetorical questions she's asked.)  How do we want our black women to represent themselves?  How if we're a white woman novelist or her chosen white male screenplay writer, both from Mississippi?  I'm reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, who self identifies as white, agnostic, half New York Jewish, half MidWestern Protestant, to show how different she is from Ms. Lacks and especially from her daughter Deborah, to whom this writer gives voice.  There's much much care and concern for right representation, for historical accuracy, for the issues at stake.  I highly recommend Skloot's book but hardly recommend the movie, The Help.  Oprah Winfrey has discussed with Skloot making her book into an HBO film, and she's hired Alan Ball to write the screenplay.  Ball is a man, a white person, who has proven how important it is to represent women fairly, and not just white women, for example in his writing of the screenplay "Towelhead," based on the book by Alicia Erian, who writes as an Egyptian-Polish American young woman.

Now, I'm not saying to anyone that they must boycott "The Help."  It is important to see the film the way it was important to see "The Passion of the Christ," written and directed and produced by a known anti-Semite and misogynist.  It was first written in English and then translated into Aramaic and into Latin, not any Greek.  The Latin was not the Latin of the characters in the film but is ecclesiastical Latin.  Who makes such films and how their characters speak does matter.  The backstory of the person telling somebody else's story does matter.  The "original" tellings of the story portrayed were translations from Aramaic and from Latin and from high Hebrew into goyish Greek turned Hebraic Hellene.  Now that's real important.  You understand the reactions of the different audience members, and you must freely have your own responses, when you get the story behind the telling of the story.

I know I'm not giving you much of a review of a movie.  I hope you'll hear and see for yourself some of the issues when someone is denied her voice or when a voice is represented and misrepresented.


Bob MacDonald said...

I am glad to hear that you are reading Skloot. The Book of Negroes by Laurence Hill (a historical novel on the slave trade told from the point of view of a midwife) is also among the best of my summer reading.

Suzanne said...

Any Known Blood by Hill is also an excellent read.

On The Help, I am not able to solicit the views of any Black viewers. I am living in a predominantly Caucasian/Asian context here.

I appreciate your blogging on this topic very much. The little that I could do was identify what I considered to be an appropriate image for Aibileen.

Theophrastus said...

I thought the source material for the Mel Gibson movie was the Anne Catherine Emmerich/Klemens Maria Bretano book (presumably in German), The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Bob, for reading and for mentioning Laurence Hill's important novel. Down here in the USA (and in NZ and down under in Australia), the book is entitled, Someone Knows My Name, perhaps because the original title has different connotations (although there really was a "Book of Negroes" which Hill's fictional protagonist in the novel contributes to); the USA book title is also a nod to James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, which clearly references, but works against, Richard Wright's Native Son. The power of language!

Suzanne, Thanks for recommending Any Known Blood. I will have to read it. Thank you also for reviewing the move, "The Help." I do think our context sometimes makes a huge difference. I remember watching an American film, a tragedy, in the theater of a crowded little village in Java, where the local audience would see the US protagonist's tears as a sign of weakness. Later, after having lived in Jakarta four years, when I saw in the US the Australian film The Year of Living Dangerously, I wondered a lot about how Americans saw Mel Gibson as journalist Guy Hamilton, probably very different from how most in Jakarta would have viewed him. (Of course the film was banned from Indonesia until the late 1990s).

You are exactly right. Gibson tried to downplay how little his "Passion" depended on Emmerick's violent and anti-Semitic visions, and Klemens Bretano's versioning of them. Thank you for bringing this up. Robert Webb's essay "The Passion and the Influence of Emmerich's The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (in Kathleen Corley's and Webb's edited work, Jesus and Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. The Film, the Gospel and the Claims of History brings to light the facts surrounding this source for Gibson's movie. And yes it was German, which probably was readily read by Nazis, although Gibson likely relied on a translation into English. Makes his eventual language choices for The Passion of the Christ all the more curious, don't you think?