A Gonzaga professor of Women's and Gender Studies, a rotating professor of the Inland Northwest, a professor of Black Studies, and the vice president of Gonzaga's Black Student union all agree that the Oscar nominated film, "The Help," was, for the most part, unhelpful. Pun intended.
Unity Multicultural Education Center and Women's and Gender Studies teamed up last Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Foley Teleconference Center to discuss the importance of "The Help." Three professors led a panel discussion and 20 or so audience members, mostly students, asked questions and shared reactions to the film.
"The Help," set in Jacksonville, Miss., in 1963, follows Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman aspiring to become a journalist and author. She wants to write a book from "the help's" perspective, meaning the black maids that every rich Mississippi house had back then. These maids are forced to use their own bathrooms, which are basically outhouses, and eat, when they are allowed to, at separate tables – and all the while they practically raise their employers' children. The film is supposed to be an uplifting story of women helping each other through the racist times of the early '60s.
What really lies at the heart of this film, though, is just a different racism, according to Thursday's discussion.
"It's basically a coming-of-age story of a white girl using servants' lives to make sense of her own," Dr. Patsy Fowler, director of Women's and Gender Studies and associate professor of English at GU said. "The racism in this film is a systemic racism that extends far beyond mere plot. We must examine the cycle of racist reproduction that film itself perpetuates within our cultural hegemony." And this hegemony is the trickiest of all, because it is a subtle coercion throughout all mediums and over an extended length of time.
Rachel Dolezal, a professor of Black Studies who rotates between Eastern Washington and North Idaho College, and is a leader for NIC's Black Students Association, said she wished the film had never been made. Her main dislike stemmed from all the money Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel and a white woman, made off of this book and film.
"Follow the money trail," Dolezal said. "A white woman makes millions off of a black woman's story."
A woman named Abilene Cooper sued Stockett for stealing her story. Cooper used to work as a maid for Stockett's brother in Jacksonville. She has been a maid since she was 13 years old in the early 1960s. She said there were too many similarities between herself and Aibileen Clark, the film's character.
Emmanuel "Bobby" Weke, vice president of GU's Black Student Union and a junior English major, stressed the movie's "feel-good" attitude that white people may sometimes feel.
"It does a lot of emotion-based things," Weke said. "You know, it's a white woman who saves the day, a person of power who saves the day. My sister, as a black woman, should she think that she needs to wait for a white woman to save her?"
When Weke first watched the movie, he admits that he had a "feel-good" reaction at the end of it but didn't give it much thought. Upon watching it a second time in preparation for this event, he realized what it really depicted and "what's at stake" in popularity of this film.
Dolezal worried that people might believe this film followed a true story. She grew worried and frustrated when she saw it in the theaters in Idaho, a prominently white town that rarely shows "those types of films—black films," and the audience laughed at inappropriate moments.
Students, too, voiced their concerns. One student said, "I feel like we moved backwards. It's like blackface of today."
Fowler described in detail how this creeping hegemony can show itself through reactions of the film. She has heard of many white women leaving the theater or discussing the film afterward saying, ‘Oh, thank God we have come so far from that.' "What they don't pick up on is how far we still need to go to reach equality," Fowler said.
Late in the discussion, the lack of violence in the book and film was discussed. The only two encounters with violence include the police arresting one black maid, which involved a confused struggle, and the mention of Medgar Evers's murder. There was one opportunity for the film to consider the serious issue of violence against blacks, especially black maids, but they awkwardly formed it into a comedic scene.
More than one audience member voiced their gratefulness for this discussion. It gave them words and ideas to back up their original dislike or discomfort with this film.
"It's wrong! But that's all I could come up with. It's just wrong!" one student kept saying when talking about the movie with her friends and coworkers.
Weke offered some hope. People must think beyond the film and question it, always search for truth, "But the truth is ugly." While panelists and audience members found no definitive moral or suggestion that would have improved the film's message, most agreed that constantly challenging society's blind acceptance of films may lead to more understanding of some serious issues. Only then can people find equality.