Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where The Help Is: A Latina Perspective on Hollywood

Much debate has ensued after the release of “The Help,” the new film about black maids and their relationships with their white employers in Mississippi during the 1960s. The setup for the film is that a white college girl comes home from school and interviews the family maids about their lives.  At first they are reluctant but she succeeds in persuading them to speak and gradually draws out others in the town. The Association of Black Women Historians has issued a statement that takes to task many elements of the film. That a movie that seems to be black-positive and portrays positive interactions between blacks and whites has drawn such fire from some in the black community is a mystery to many people. Yet if you dig just below the surface, the justification for this critique becomes clear.

The stories of blacks and Latinos that make it into the movies are usually the ones written by whites about their positive interactions with nonwhite people. African Americans are weary of stories about black maids, nannies, whores and gangbangers. Stories written by African Americans about their own experiences do not necessarily have a kindly white person easing the way. Americans value the white, middle-class perspective in a way that they do not value a black or Latino's own story. In a nutshell, American society prefers to think of itself as kinder and more beneficent than our history shows us to be.

Hollywood has created movies about heroic black characters, but more often than not, the primary perspective in these stories is that of a white person. Take the most iconic of these stories, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The story is primarily of a young white girl, Scout, learning about racism, and of her modest, heroic father, Atticus Finch, and his efforts to stop an injustice against an innocent black man accused of rape. Do you remember his name? Do you remember who played him? I thought not. Tom Robinson was played by Brock Peters, a character actor who went on to have a long and successful career. Atticus Finch was played by the great Gregory Peck; no matter what else he went on to do in his career, his image as the upright Southern lawyer in a white suit is what everyone remembers.

In “Ghosts of Mississippi,” Alec Baldwin plays Bobby DeLaughters, the heroic prosecutor who finally brings the killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers to account. DeLaughters sacrificed his political aspirations and lost his marriage in his pursuit of justice. DeLaughters, not the dead leader or his wife Myrlie Evers (played by Whoopi Goldberg), was the hero of the film.

“Cry Freedom,” about South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, focused on a white South African journalist (portrayed by Kevin Kline) whose views about Biko changed after they met. Then he sets out to investigate Biko’s torture and killing at the hands of the police. He was forced to flee South Africa when he wrote a book about his findings.

Even in a story like "Something the Lord Made," with rapper Mos Def as the true-life lab technician turned heart surgery pioneer, Vivien Thomas, the black character’s achievements take place within the narrow window society allowed because an arrogant white cardiologist pushed his own prejudice aside a wee bit to make the black character's achievements possible.

Did you ever hear of “Sarafina?” It was one of Whoopi Goldberg's finest roles, but it was in the theaters for perhaps five minutes.  She was central to the story; there was no white facilitator. In that story, the only white characters were the police who tortured her. It did not get much of a white audience because most whites don't want to see--or face--the abuses perpetrated by their own.

The public at large, like you, may go to see a film or a show out of interest in the subject matter or because you want to show your children a broader view of the world; all good motivations, but Hollywood does not trust that ethnically or racially authentic stories will sell.

Consider the story of the black Baltimore Ravens football player Michael Oher in the film “The Blind Side.” I read about him originally in New Times magazine in September 2006, in “The Ballad of Big Mike,” and was so moved by the article that I cut it out and shared with friends; I cannot remember the white woman’s place in the story; it was really focused on Oher’s own trek.  “The Blind Side” was more about a Southern white woman doing something good and noble, and Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of the woman justly won an Academy Award for best performance. I wonder if Hollywood would have made that movie if Oher had been rescued by a middle-class black family, or if the player had told his own story. Would it sell? Or was the image in the ad for the film, showing the massive Oher walking with the small woman’s arm protectively around his shoulders, just too good to pass up?

How many blacks are allowed to be heroes in our society?  A black man becomes President, and the Republicans declare that they will do everything to defeat him; they unite to oppose everything he proposes, even when he takes up their own proposals! But they insist that racism is not their main motivation. Nope, no racism here.

Which black stories get wide coverage? Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry's parodies of black families where grandma is played broadly by a man in drag. To me, Perry's comedies are little better than the old minstrel shows, with blacks shucking and jiving for our entertainment pleasure.

Yet African Americans influence American culture deeply in less
conscious ways. Just as the culture as a whole has absorbed jazz, which has its roots in native African musical forms, young people have absorbed hip-hop, black clothing and hair styles. The impact of black culture goes much deeper than we can imagine.

It is almost painful to talk about how Latinos are portrayed in the cinema and on television. How many Latinas do you see in movies or TV who are not whores, gangbangers, busty bombshells, or maids?  How many Latina professors, doctors, lawyers, or roles as other professionals do you see Latinas play? 

Thank God for Jennifer Lopez--she is beautiful, elegant, smart, accomplished, and she is doing something besides a stereotypical role. She has played a wider variety of roles than most Latina actresses, such as in “Out of Sight,” where she played a U.S. Marshal in pursuit of George Clooney as a bank robber; “Angel Eyes,” where she played a police officer; or “The Wedding Planner ,“ where she played the eponymous role. None of these characters have a Latino name or any hint of Latino culture. Is her acceptability to the general American audience somehow better if she is laundered of her Latina identity? When she turns up in a Latino role, aside from the tragic “Selena,” she is playing—SURPRISE!—a hotel maid in “Maid in Manhattan.”   I am proud that J-Lo is Latina and I am reminded of earlier Latina actresses who “could pass” and were forced to give their names in pursuit of stardom, like Rita Hayworth, née Margarita Carmen Cansino, whose father was of Jewish-Spanish background and her mother of Irish-English descent. Thankfully Carmen Miranda and Rita Moreno weren’t stripped of their identities to star in the movies.

I know that other Latinas share my extreme weariness with the trash that most Latinas play in the movies; on television, we’re virtually invisible. Then there’s George Lopez, but he’s the subject for another kind of rant.

[published on MyLatinoVoice 08/30/2011   http://www.mylatinovoice.com/film/67-movie-news/2987-where-the-help-is-a-latina-perspective-on-hollywood.html]

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