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The Great Debate: “The Help” vs. “Shame” – Really??!!

Shadow and Act By MsWOO | Shadow and Act September 18, 2011 at 4:01AM

I've taken a bit of an S&A hiatus over the last few months, only to come back and wonder what the hell's going on? I missed the whole The Help and Shame debacle until it (well, the Shame posts) were brought to my attention recently.
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I've taken a bit of an S&A hiatus over the last few months, only to come back and wonder what the hell's going on? I missed the whole The Help and Shame debacle until it (well, the Shame posts) were brought to my attention recently.

What is it with all these knee-jerk reactions to films we haven't even seen yet? Yes, I've been guilty of that myself from time to time but long, essay-like comments citing everyone else's erroneous opinions (i.e. ones that conflict with yours) and then descending into personal insults and tit for tat name calling in a bid for one-upmanship should never have to be par for the course. In viewing the comments sections on any recent post related to Shame on S&A, my reaction has gone from initial amusement to eventual embarrassment that anyone would go so far to excoriate the cast, crew and supporters of a film they haven't even seen.

Not having seen The Help myself yet nor read the comments on many of the posts relating to that film, I have to say that it’s a film I want to see and no amount of reverse race-baiting finger-pointing will make me feel otherwise. A 1960s small town Mississippi set film about the relationship between black and white women… So the black women are playing maids to the white women. And…? Yeah, we've seen this all too many times before, but give Viola Davis some credit before consigning her to the trash can of failed expectations of holding up the race - a job which is not hers alone to bear, by the way. She's a discerning actress, a talented discerning actress, an intelligent, talented discerning actress, and if she hadn't seen some merit in the role, something she could bring added depth, nuance and dignity to, I hardly think she'd have accepted the part.

Playing a maid doesn't have to be any less dignified than the women who actually had to be maids and still hold their heads up high. They deserve to have stories told about them too, even if it's going to be done by a white woman who still can't grasp that she doesn't have to be the centre of attention and the driving force behind the action. Then again, how many black maids would have succeeded in getting a book about their experiences under the tyranny of white female employers published back then (or would even dare to) without the help of a white person? But, hey, it's not a documentary, it's fiction, a white woman's fiction at that. However, amidst the maelstrom of outrage from black academics, social commentators and web surfers, I'm also reading stories of women who actually went through the indignity of having to hide their feelings and quiet their voices in order to feed their families. Oddly enough, even today, it's not their voices that are being heard the loudest or put at the centre of all the moral indignation, but the voices of people with public profiles to promote and/or who have been afforded better opportunities than the women whose dignity they purport to defend (thanks, in no small part, l would imagine, to some of those same women). Next time I read about someone's great aunt, mother, or grandmother, who was a maid and went to see the film and loved it, I'll remind them how ashamed they should be for not kow-towing to the ideals of the most indignantly vociferous defenders of the race who fight so valiantly on their behalf.

And why is Shame even being mentioned in the same breath as The Help? They're poles apart! Oh, I forgot, Nicole Beharie is in Shame, playing a degrading role as a single-parent black 'ho' to a white man... Or maybe not… But where did this snippet of information come from anyway? As at the time of my writing this, how many people have seen the film? A handful who were at either the Venice or Toronto films festivals. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have come back (not here to S&A nor anywhere else online that I've come across) to say that Beharie’s character is a skank. From what I’ve read, if anyone falls under that description, surely it's Brandon, the lead character played by Michael Fassbender. For those of us who haven't seen the film but have read the script that’s been floating around, there's nothing in there to suggest that she plays a character of particularly low moral integrity, and certainly not one that has the potential to bring down the whole race - human or black! In fact, if the script I read is to be believed, of all Brandon’s sexual encounters (and there aren’t even that many as he spends most of his time on porn and self-gratification), Beharie's character is the only one Brandon wants, and makes the effort, to form an emotional attachment to but fails, due his own issues of emotional and psychological insecurity and inadequacy. Has anyone seen pictures of him on a date with anyone else? No? Hmmm, I wonder why that is. Or maybe that’s just something that only I read into the script due to my sycophantic need to embrace an arty British director whose real intent is to lead me to moral bankruptcy and destroy the image of black women the world over… The film deals with sex addiction. Big deal. So the film shows full frontal nudity and graphic sex. Who here over 16 (the film has received a NC-17 certificate in the US) hasn't seen a naked pee-pee and/or moo-moo (I would use their real names but wouldn’t want to offend); or engaged in sex, even if it was just with yourself?

This isn't church, it's Shadow And Act, a blog site dedicated to cinema of the African diaspora. Life can be uncomfortably raw, it's often miserable, sometimes gritty, and black people often, but not always, get the short end of the stick. Yes, it’s nice to have escapist films that make us feel better and help us bury our heads in the sand about the true, often brutal, vile and seamier, side of human existence but, personally, I think it’s important to also reflect on the true nature of life’s sometimes weird, depraved, unctuous ways, and that’s what good films, and all honest art, should do. Reflect. If we can’t handle that, it says more about us than the films under scrutiny.

Don’t like a film because it portrays a black, overweight teenager who is sexually molested by her father? I’m guessing any teenager in that situation could do with more than your race conscious outrage at a work of fiction. Don’t like black women playing maids in period dramas? I doubt the black women who were maids in real life were overjoyed at their lot in life but, somehow, many of them managed to carve out for themselves lives in which they still found love and dignity and who would - heaven forefend! – even look back on those days with a sense of pride and nostalgia, perhaps for having gotten through it, perhaps for small events that remain vivid in their minds and touch them in ways we’ll never understand; and, no doubt, there will be those who, opportunity permitting, would happily go back and kill the white b!tches who made their lives a living hell, or at least give them a good seeing to. There are lots of films out there, not all of them as good as we might like them to be, and not all portraying themes we find appealing. Some of these films will be lazy and rely on stereotypes and clichéd tropes, others will have high ambitions but fall short in their efforts to portray difficult subjects, but I’d rather they at least try and fail rather than stick to the tried and tested, often black and white (no pun intended) banality that so often passes for entertainment and ends up touching neither mind nor soul in any meaningful way; and it would be great, too, if our discussions and debates about these films were enlightening and mind expanding rather than spiteful and headache inducing.

We all know black people are generally under- and often poorly-represented in films and so we tend to want to look at every role under a microscope, even before we have the specimen. But since when did slurs and mud-slinging (directed at each other and the films' director, cast and crew) take the place of constructive criticism or critical analysis? I mean, who wouldn't love to see Beharie and Davis in meatier and leading roles?! But, hey, given their training, intelligence and obvious talent, I like to at least see what they bring to a role, regardless of what that role is. But if the notion of what they might portray offends my sensibilities too much or doesn’t pique my interest, I’ll just refrain from seeing it, as well as try and refrain from bashing anyone else who wants to spend their time and/or money on it.

I wasn't keen on Steve McQueen as a choice for directing Focus Features’ yet to be made Fela film project and even did a blog post in which I aired my reservation, even after seeing Hunger (which I found riveting), but that doesn't mean I'm not eager to see how that project, and this current one, Shame, pans out. The Help hasn’t come out yet in the UK but I’ve read the book (and yes – shock, horror! – race traitor that I am, I liked it) and plan to see the film when it hits these shores. People I know, love and respect have no intention of seeing the film but that won’t stop me from seeing it any more than I can force them to see the film for themselves. If they choose to take umbrage at my decision, again, it says more about them than about the film. Each to their own – I know we’ll agree about some other thing some other time.

We're all adults here. We're all interested in film. We're all interested in film by, for, about, or involving, black people. Let's not accuse directors and actors of denigrating the black race even as we open ourselves to public ridicule and spew forth ill-informed judgement and prejudiced speculation. We don't all have to like the same films, we don't even have to like each other, but please, let's at least respect ourselves, and each other’s opinions, enough to agree to disagree from time to time. Most of all though, let’s not make those silly “either/or” judgement calls when it comes to things pertaining to black people and culture. You can give your reasons for liking one, the other, both, neither, or even a multiple of options without having to stamp anyone else’s choice(s) into the ground or call their character into question. Having favourites is cute but, from my personal observation, without due consideration, it can also lead to a closed mind and lack of growth and objectivity. If you must have favourites though, at least try actually giving other options a look for yourself first so you can make an informed decision. We all have opinions, and many of us like to share them, but how about we all try to share them in ways that don’t involve personal put-downs and puerile insults? Both you and your opponents deserve better – we all do.


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