Maya Angelou told me “why the caged bird sings”. Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry both pondered on how a dream deferred is like “a raisin in the sun:” It festers but it continues to shine on stage and screen. I’ve received a “lesson before dying” at the feet of Ernest Gaines, especially after Oprah brought it to HBO. Long before that television first, Mr. Gaines had been successful in telling me the real story of “Miss Jane Pittman” — in his book-to-movie project. Can everyone say Cecily Tyson?
Alex Haley found his “roots” and we all went to Africa and took the journey to America with Kunta Kente — call him Toby — and four generations of his family, a phenomenon that changed television viewing for an entire generation of white and black viewers.
And when Toni Morrison turned her thoughts and pen to the subject of love, it was interpreted for the full screen and stage (an opera starring Denise Graves) making the word “beloved” part of the worldwide Google dictionary.
These are examples of several serious, scholarly and thought-provoking treatments of the conditions of African Americans in literature turned into popular movies, plays and television series. More recently, I have been reading commentaries about The Help, an end-of summer movie based on a novel of the same name.
It stars Viola Davis, an undisputed serious actor and Academy Award nominee, along with a stellar cast of near-equals. The story line is getting a dust-up for being — entertaining.
The rub, it seems to me, is that that peculiar form of employment of African-American women by Southern white women is simply not for entertainment purposes. And that anyone would have the audacity to feel and confess to any satisfaction derived from reading the story and/or enjoying the screen adaptation is untenable. That any part of the African-American experience should become fodder for anything other than a jumping-off place for another lesson in history is suddenly unpopular.
Come on. Go back to the listing above. Those stories are filled with moments of levity, points where the pain is so great that we have to laugh to keep from
crying. There are also moments of pure joy felt in the presence of another human being.
Stand-up comedy is rife with laughter at the conditions of our people: our history, our strivings and our over-comings.
So what is the problem with The Help?
Many of the comments refer to the “real” relationships between the help and the white women of the South, that the truth would never be uttered by any black women of the South.
The concern is that all these women who helped were subjected to rape, threatened with lynching of them or their men and children, underpaid – an understatement — and otherwise so exploited that the very idea that someone, in this case a white woman, would give the subject a “light” treatment is unthinkable and should not be rewarded.
Note: Neither the book nor the movie offers a history lesson. The book is a novel that became a bestseller because it contained the elements of a good story. The movie is based on the book.
Just recently published after 15 years of research, The Warmth of Other Suns, a compilation by Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winner, tells about the migration of blacks from the South from 1915 to the present. Truths about race and class are revealed, including drama, tension, suffering and triumphs that many complain are elements missing in The Help.
Sally Hemming — now that was some help. Her story has often been told. I suggest you get the most recent version by Barbara Chase-Ribald, now available on book shelves, e-readers, tapes, etc.
But would either of the above make it to a screen- play? And, if so, would you go see it? And, if you do, whom would you take with you? Who will produce it and, very importantly, will it make any money for the actors, the producers?
Question: Can the story of black people in this country ever be told to the satisfaction of everyone — black, white, Northerner, immigrant, first-generation, free-born, male, female, descendants of house slave versus field slave, etc?
What is the correct telling of our story? Have you read it yet? Have you written it yet?
Antonia Williams-Gary is a consultant with Miami-based Savings and Grace Enterprise. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org