HE STILL GOT GAME?: Spike Lee’s new film, ‘Red Hook Summer,’ which explores religion and urban life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is his first movie to be released during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo: David Lee/Newscom)
Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.
Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”
Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.
Lord, Help Our Blind Sides
The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.
In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.
We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”
Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
Where Art Thou, Spike?
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.
This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.
ALWAYS THE MAID: Actress Viola Davis won numerous acting honors but also faced criticism for her role as Aibileen Clark in "The Help." (Image: Dreamworks/Touchstone Pictures)
“When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh come on, why her? Again!’ ” Those opening lines of Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards this past Sunday verbalized my sentiments exactly, and I’m sure the sentiments of many others. Though Streep is an excellent actor, I was disappointed that Viola Davis, the gifted actor who played Aibileen Clark in The Help, wasn’t chosen as this year’s Best Actress by the committee handing out those coveted Oscars.
While I know I wasn’t alone in my disappointment, I’m sure there were also African Americans who were actually relieved that Davis did not win. That’s just how strong the displeasure among many African Americans was regarding Davis’ role as a ’60s-era Jackson, Mississippi-based maid in The Help. Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help was a source of controversy almost from the beginning, with the African American community up in arms about the movie and Ms. Davis’ decision to play a maid. In an impromptu Facebook survey of my friends, I found mostly mixed emotions about The Help. “African American actors, as well as other actors of color must be selective in the roles they choose to play,” said one friend. “They must really know the purpose behind the film, the targeted audience, and avoid stereotypical roles.” Her view seems to represent the opinion of many.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
The general consensus, as seen in the news media, is that African Americans are weary of seeing Black actors in subservient roles, as well as the lack of quality leading roles and films that offer a broader view of the African American experience. It didn’t matter that Ms. Davis did a superb job in her portrayal of Aibileen, personalizing the character through knowledge of her family’s heritage of domestic workers. Many people simply were ambivalent about the notion of another Black actor playing a stereotype. Ms. Davis, however, saw the importance of her role when she toldFresh Air host Terry Gross, “You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.”
Ms. Davis makes a good point, but even she has acknowledged the dearth of quality roles for Black actors. This has led to the enduring perception that the Academy Awards voting committee, which a recent Los Angeles Times report observed is 94 percent White and 77 percent male, is naturally disinterested in seeing non-White actors in substantial leading roles that transcend standard stereotypes.
I confess that I had my own reservations about seeing The Help initially, having grown tired of movies with Black domestic servants raising white people’s children while often neglecting the needs of their own families. I had seen enough of it, and even heard many real-life stories about it from my own family. Many, if not most, of our ancestors in the 1960s and prior — from the North to the South and everywhere in between — cooked, cleaned, sewed, chauffeured, handled the interests of, and had a part in raising the children of white families. Most of us don’t want to be reminded, preferring instead to highlight past and current achievements of many highly accomplished African Americans in our community. So was this movie a proverbial push back in line and one of “knowing one’s place,” as the Old South would remind us? Or could it be a realistic portrayal of a not-so-distant time in American history?
Another issue raised by the film is this: Should Black people continue to be angry about Hollywood’s shortsightedness when it comes to making films that authentically reflect African American life? Or, should we simply be grateful and celebrate whenever African American actors do their jobs well, no matter the roles they’re given to play?
In an appearance on ABC’s The View, Ms. Davis talked about her initial reluctance to take on the role. “You knew there was going to be a backlash from the African American community,” she told Barbara Walters and the other ladies. “It is a story set in 1962 about maids who are not educated, and I thought that people would look at that and they wouldn’t see the work.”
Seeing the work for what it was, I appreciated the film’s artistry. After counting the few films of Davis’ I had seen, I read her filmography of 40 films to date, including titles like Law Abiding Citizen and Antwone Fisher, but also Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail. I wondered about the attention or lack thereof, garnered from Davis’ previous roles, like the characters she played as the BBF (i.e., Black Best Friend) opposite Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and Diane Lane in Nights in Rodanthe, providing a shoulder to cry on and mother wit, to boot. And let’s not forget Doubt, where Davis earned Oscar and Golden Globe award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. In that film, Davis played opposite Meryl Streep (again!), who was nominated for Best Actress. Surely, we all saw those movies. Didn’t we?
In that Facebook poll I conducted, some of my friends stated that African American directors should correct the problem of limited film choices for Black actors by creating films with great Black characters. While that’s an understandable sentiment, do we need to be reminded that it takes ambitious amounts of funding and the blessing of countless (usually White) Hollywood decision makers to get any type of movie made today? Hollywood finances what the majority of moviegoers will pay for (notwithstanding the bootleg copies of released films that probably sell exponentially above the few actual ticket sales at the box office). If Hollywood won’t fund the films we want to see, we get angry with directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers for neglecting to make them (as if these directors owe us.) How many times have you heard people in our community complain about the latest gangsta film featuring do-wrong black characters? Rarely.
When Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actor awarded the coveted Oscar for her 1939 portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, we applauded even as she poignantly expressed her hope that she would “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” Was anyone complaining then? Fast forward some 70 years later and many of us are complaining, as Tavis Smiley did on his PBS show, about Davis’ nomination.
During his interview with Davis and her Help costar Octavia Spencer (who went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Smiley remarked: “There’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid … [and] here we are all these years later … and I want you to win … but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.” The actress shot back: “That very mindset … that a lot of African Americans have is absolutely destroying the Black artist.”
As Hollywood continues to finance movies it deems profitable, we may continue to see characters like Aibilene Clark and the young, white, savior-esque character, Skeeter. And know that the majority of the Academy is White and male.
Whether refusing to support Black artists will contribute to their ultimate destruction, as Davis contends, is up for debate. But while you stand your ground waiting for Hollywood to showcase those artists in more desirable roles, think about supporting them in the meantime. Honor their attempts to make strides in a nearly impenetrable industry that still gives crumbs to Black and other minority actors, compared to the whole slices of cake the majority often receives.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.
In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in Somalia, Uganda,Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.
Exploitationsaid Akiba Solomon at Colorlines without actually seeing the film. “I can’t bring myself to pay $12.50 … to watch these sisters lend gravitas to Stockett’s white heroine mythology,” she said and recommended Eyes on the Prize and The Warmth of Other Suns instead.
Sappy said Alyssa Rosenberg at The Atlantic. “Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism,” she said. “Whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem.” She suggested Freedom Ridersinstead.
Both/and said a group of black professional women at The Root. “Too often, we are afraid to discuss the harsh realities of our shared American history. We all know black maids raised white children in the South during slavery and after. White people are part of that story and have a point of view,” said one. “I realized the group I went with actually had much more in common with the white women portrayed in the film than we did the black women. That’s great news about how far we’ve come, but it also made me think seriously about what we’re doing (if anything) to honor their legacy,” said another.
Get behind it, said NAACP chairman Roslyn Brock at The Los Angeles Times. “My grandmother was a domestic in Florida, and when she passed, almost two generations of families whom she had taken care of sent condolences saying what an important part she was to their family. And it never really connected with me until I saw this movie.”
Inspiration, said Mary J. Blige in an interview with ABC News about the theme song she wrote for the movie. “They’re all living proof of surviving out of a bad situation by holding onto each other and encouraging each other through all of that stuff to do better,” she said.
See and discuss, said an integrated group of 300 Christian women in Charlotte, North Carolina, who will screen the movie together Saturday and then meet at a church to discuss it, the Charlotte Observer reported.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
A repost of our March 23, 2010 book review.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.