TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2011
Reviewing the New York police—and The Help: Two Sundays ago, we were amazed by the very poor work in the New York Times’ Sunday Review.
This piece about religious belief struck us as a large muddle. The section included an editorial about Tim Tebow, an NFL player—and an opinion column on the same rather limited topic. Beyond that, we thought this front-page piece was very poorly reasoned.
The author complains about “a persistent historical and present-day attack on black people in America, with black men made into deviants and black women into problems.” On its face, this topic is well worth examining. But go ahead—read the whole piece. Concerning the author’s specific complaint, she cites no source for the current attack other than her family and friends, who, in context, seem to be black. Them, and maybe one book by a Stanford professor.
The Times seems to love weakly-reasoned work, especially concerning race. In part for that reason, we were very impressed by this piece in this past weekend’s Sunday Review. The piece was written by Nicholas Peart, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College. The piece is extremely well written—and it cuts to the bone about a matter of race involving the New York police.
Because the piece was so well written—and so aggressively constructive—it didn’t rate the Sunday Review’s front page. But what a superb piece of work! It made us think of Dr. King’s refusal, long ago, to be anything but forward-looking and constructive.
In our view, constructive counts, unless you don’t care about outcomes.
Over the weekend, we also watched C-Span’s book event with Melissa Harris-Perry. (To watch the full hour, click here.) At the 33-minute mark, Harris-Perry spends about ten minutes discussing the movie (and/or book), The Help. When The Help appeared in theaters last summer, Harris-Perry was featured on The Last Word offering an aggressively negative but brief review. In this book event, she fleshes out her complaints.
For ourselves, we didn’t think her complaints made real good sense, although there’s surely plenty of room to move beyond the film’s contents. (One example: When people saw the film, did they think they were watching a history? Harris-Perry seems to think so.) But the topic starts 33 minutes in. Your reactions may differ.
One note: Harris-Perry says she saw the film in New Orleans. She says the audience applauded at the end, just as a largely-black audience applauded here in Baltimore on the day we saw the film. She seems to suggest that they maybe shouldn’t have done that, given the film's allegedly gloomy ending. Our guess: For all its shortcomings, which are several, those people may have seen things in the film which Harris-Perry missed.
Check out her discussion on-line. Your reactions may differ from ours. But as we all know, race still matters.
Here's my take on Melissa Harris-Perry and The Help. In general, Hollywood comparatively rarely if ever deals with the very rich, complex, often difficult but also often joyous experiences of black Americans or other people of color, except in biopics or semi-biopics, or in "race" movies that tend to put whites at the center of the stories. There are select directors who come along, like Spike Lee 20 years ago, or Tyler Perry today, who make films that run counter to this, but in general, most Hollywood films, like most American TV, whites out everyone except for a token person of color, and still traffics in stereotypes, not just racially, but ethnically, in terms of religion, class, gender, etc.ReplyDelete
This has been the case since Hollywood's earliest days, and it has hardly changed. (There's also the problem of countless Hollywood films simply consigning people who aren't white to the margins of the screen, even though many Americans--most?--have regular interactions, even if just at work, with people of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc.) Some great directors of color and some not so great ones have come along, including all the way back in the early 20th century (Oscar Micheaux, etc.) on through today, and eventually we will see, I hope, films that reflect the rich present and past experiences of this society (which has had blacks, native americans, latinos, mixed-race people, and since the mid 19th-century, asian americans, as well as whites).
But we still seldom see this rich tapestry of experience reflected in Hollywood's films, which portray only a narrows sliver--straight, upper-middle-class, white, mostly Christian and Jewish--of the United States. That's it.
So, Melissa Harris-Perry, like many liberal, educated people who know about the complexity of our past and present, and who have studied it in depth, see a film like The Help, which reduces the complexity of the Civil Rights era in the South, suggests that only white people with bad attitudes were racists (when all white people benefited from white supremacy, segregation, and racism, and only those who actively spoke out can be said not to have been tacitly complicit), portrays Southern whites particularly negatively (when it was often some of the richest white people who were the most racist in terms of wielding power and influence in upholding racism), and yet again putting a white person at the center of a story in which black people's lives and experiences should be the fulcrum. THAT is perhaps what Melissa Harris-Perry is trying to address. People may like the movie quite a bit; many people loved the show "I'll Fly Away," many people loved MIssissippi Burning, many people really like a lot of what Hollywood puts out. But in terms of showing the complexity of what people lived and experienced and felt during that era, the movie is typical. It deserves to be criticized. It is tragic that we have yet to see many films about that era as rich and complex and powerful as Nothing But A Man, which appeared all the way back in 1964, directed by a German director, Michael Roemer (can anyone seriously imagine a white American director of that era making such a beautiful, nuanced film? Could Tyler Perry or Spike Lee do so? There are directors today who could, but they probably would struggle to get funding to do so) and starring the young Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, among others, but such is the society we live in.
But it is changing, thank goodness!
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