I didn’t want to see it. I knew it would most likely infuriate me and it would make me sad (and I try to avoid sad because sad is an emotion permanently lurking and waiting to make a jump and get hold of me; and then it sends me into this spiral of more sadness and anxiety). I didn’t want to see it because I knew some of it would hit too close to home for personal reasons. Mostly, I wanted to spare myself the potential heartbreak. I am, of course, talking about The Help.
Lots have been written about this movie in the past few days. Lots by many smart people (people way smarter and more knowledgeable than me). AfroLez has compiled the most comprehensive list of critiques I’ve seen so far and I truly believed I would have nothing to add to them. But then I saw the movie. And it seems I have something to say. Plenty to say, in fact.
To begin with, I almost fell off my chair as the opening credits rolled. The first frame was a screen wide logo of DreamWorks, which considering this is a Hollywood film should not surprise anyone. The next frame, though. Oh yes, this is when I found out that the other production company behind this train wreck is actually Imagenation Abu Dhabi. Never heard of it? Oh, I cannot blame you, I wouldn’t have known it either if it wasn’t that I was actually working in Abu Dhabi when this government owned venture was being set up and looking for Hollywood projects to invest in.
But before I get to the politics of this production company, I want to share a tidbit of information with you: one of the reasons I stopped working in Abu Dhabi amidst a very deep personal crisis, was because I had been hired by an institution that turned out to be involved in very abusive practices. I saw first hand the systemic oppression of maids, all of them WoC from Africa, South East Asia and the Philippines in the United Arab Emirates (the Emirates is a country, termed “emirates” because it is ruled by emirs; the capital is Abu Dhabi, which is also the country’s center of political, industrial and cultural activities). I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was being paid by some of the people involved in these abuses. I saw myself as complicit in a situation I could neither change nor address but which I felt led me to profiting from the suffering of vulnerable WoC. I was then bound by Confidentiality Agreements that prevented me from writing about these subjects, mainly because the government provided the money that backed the Foundation that had hired me. I invite you to pursue the archives of Migrant Rights to get an idea of the systemic abuses these domestic workers endure. I left in 2009 and I haven’t been back since.
What exactly would compel Imagenation Abu Dhabi to invest in a movie that advances the idea of WoC’s lack of agency? What would compel this government owned company to back up a film that perpetuates rancid notions about the social standing and lives of domestic workers, when this government itself has often been accused of not addressing the abuse that domestic workers in the Emirates face in the hands of the ruling classes? I can assure you, this was not a random decision. This is politically motivated (every investment made by the government of the Emirates IS politically motivated, even though we might not be able to pin point the exact reasons at first sight).
Before seeing the movie, I had already read at least half a dozen well thought critiques. I had also read the commentary that these critiques had, in turn, triggered. In a sense, I knew what to expect. I just wasn’t prepared for the insidious ways in which the racism and erasure are presented. The whitewashing is not just in the words, in the interactions, in the narrative. The whitewashing is also evident in the profusion of pastel colors. The White universe comes in shades of pink, beige, lilac, mauve and baby blue. It’s like the production spent months carefully studying each photo in Carefree White Girl and decided to bring that aesthetic to life. In a racist movie, no less. In contrast, the African American, the Black universe, is dark. It comes in shades of petrol green, grey, brown, faded ochre, it is badly lit. Because, you see, the light always comes from the White universe. The White universe has sunny days and gardens and copious vegetation. The White universe is not just a metaphor for the enlightenment of Blacks. The White universe is light itself!
And this White, well lit universe is populated by a multitude of barely modernized Blanche DuBois-es. And again, here’s what’s insidious about the racism in this movie: that the writers would use these women who are obviously so flawed and so contemptible as instruments of redemption to the Black characters. What they are telling us through this narrative is that these deeply immoral characters are above the Black women because they are the ones who supposedly provide the redemption, they are the ones who should facilitate it. Even the supposedly “good” girl, Skeeter (the main character, played by Emma Stone) is abusive, although, of course, this is left unaddressed because, she is, after all “the hero”. When met with Aibileen Clark’s refusal (played by the wonderful Viola Davis), she won’t take no for an answer. Skeeter is determined to see the book happen. She relentlessly pursues Aibileen, goes after her when she is about to take the bus to go home. Due to the obvious power imbalance in this pursuit, we should call it for what it is, harassment. The maid, the help is expected to give away her free time in the pursuit of a White woman’s book. With no promise or contractual agreement of compensation for doing so, just because, she is told, Skeeter is going to write a book. And it’s going to be good! And we are not directly informed, but it is implicit in Skeeter’s reaction after her first sit down session with Aibileen, this book is going to get Skeeter a career in the publishing industry. At the expense of a WoC’s labor and effort. Wonderful! Racist capitalism in pastel colors!
Make no mistake, in addition to its racism and White Supremacy, this film is also deeply misogynistic. And its misogyny is directed in great doses at White women themselves. It’s a tired trope of slut shaming, girl on girl crimes, heteronormative and sexist cliches. Women exist in two categories: subservient WoC or oppressive, shallow, abusive White women. That some critics are defending it as a powerful tale of “the ways that females of the era both dished out and endured racism” misses the point entirely. The White women in this film are portrayed as oblivious to their part in the oppression of their own gender. They exercise violence towards the help (vulgar, open, never disguised violence) but they also do so on their own friends, colleagues, family members, fetuses. In that regard, they are creatures bereft of humanity and empathy even towards each other. For that, we should also be deeply offended. Because, you see, the film thinks so lowly of women that we are presented with Women of Color devoid of agency and incapable of telling their own stories without a White woman’s proxy while at the same time, the White women themselves do nothing but constantly undermine each other. In the end, contrary to what the film makers would have us believe, there is no redemption for anyone. There is only the perpetuation of these roles for both Black and White women alike. And misogyny for all.