Sunday, August 21, 2011

Couldn't Help But See The Help

The Fayetteville Observer published this opinion piece of mine, the third in a commissioned series.

Couldn't Help But See "The Help"

by Skye Dent

I hadn't planned on seeing "The Help," the new hit film revolving around the lives of black maids catering to dark-souled white women in the 1960s South.

Sure, there were good solid reasons to attend.

As a black female who wrote scripts in Hollywood for over a decade, I know the small band of brothers and sisters of color still working there. I generally know someone who has worked on, crewed in, acted in or written any film somehow involving black people in front of or behind the camera. So, I support the product of my friends just as I buy the tamales my cousins make and sell door-to-door in Los Angeles.

And although many people think only black people can enjoy or identify with black films, that's preposterous. Audiences enjoy good films, no matter what. I've written for general audience TV shows such as "Star Trek Voyager" and "The Burning Zone." I'm proof positive that black people can write scripts that white people enjoy.

But "The Help" was another story, one I knew would hit home in a painful way from seeing the 30-second trailers. It was my story. My mom's story. My aunt's story. My grandmother's story. The story of many black women from generations before mine.

For all of them, it was a story of searingly brutal sacrifice punctuated with few moments of self-fulfillment.

The story of Negro women denied important time with their own families because they had to raise the kids of white folks. The story of women who scrub the floors of multiple level homes and then walk home in the dark to small cramped quarters shared with children and husbands they barely see.

My family's story

My mom is from Belize. As a young woman, she was runner-up in the Beauty of the Bay pageant. She had every right to expect a fantastic life when she moved to the United States in the 1950s.
Instead, she ended up being the help to a New Orleans family. Ten bucks a week to clean the house, take care of two kids, and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the first few months, she didn't even get the full 10 bucks because the family deducted the costs of her passport and boat ride from Belize. When she became pregnant with my oldest sister, they kicked her out.

She and my dad, a railroad cook who was part West Indian and part Mississippi Choctaw, moved to Boston as did many Negroes seeking a better life and less segregation. Again, she became the help. I'll always remember Mrs. McFawn, the Jewish woman in Brookline for whom my mom worked. For the first four years before I could attend school, my mom took me to work with her and sat me in a corner while she cleaned.

In those days, tea-bag strings had cards attached. Mrs. McFawn did not make tea for me. Heavens no. But she did save the tea cards for me. Those cards had pictures of animals and little descriptions, my first clues to the power of the written word.

Later, during summer vacations from junior high, I became the help. I washed dishes and served food at a senior citizens home. My most vivid memory was bringing food to one patient and finding her dead. A nurse reminded a very shocked me that she'd told me the patient had "expired." How was I to know what "expired" meant? I soon learned.

And like the maid Aibileen that Viola Davis plays in "The Help," my mom lost her son at a young age - 16. We never knew the truth of how it happened. In those days, police used to take black boys into alleys and beat them behind the knees where the bruises were hesitant to show.

A few reporters said police had killed my brother and wanted us to investigate. The police said he hanged himself. At the funeral, I snuck up front and tried to rub the makeup from his neck to see if there were burn marks. But my parents knew a world of trouble lay in wait for a black couple making claims against the then primarily white Boston Police. So, my mom packed away photos of my brother.

Like Aibileen, my mom remained the help. Like the women in "The Help," what choice did she have? She not only had to help take care of her children. As an immigrant, she was expected to help those she left behind in Belize. She sent money home for decades. She helped sponsor relatives so they could start a better life.

Results of their labor

My mom and my dad were the help all of their lives.

Because of them, I got to go to Brown University, became the youngest editorial writer of a daily newspaper, produce documentaries for Discovery Channel, write a script for, and co-create an alien race for, "Star Trek Voyager," get a job as a staff writer on "The Burning Zone," work on "Dirty Sexy Money" and now, teach at Fayetteville State University.

Because of my parents' sacrifices, one of my sisters went on to become a successful advertising production manager. The other is an artist. One of her paintings was in the "Sex and the City" movie. And the younger brother, the other brother, went into the restaurant business like my dad. We may occasionally have to put up with bosses who have Ph.Ds in stupidity and arrogance. But, we don't have to clean up after them.

And now all of us siblings collaborate to take care of The Help. Yes, my mom has Social Security. But, it's never enough. So we fill in the gap. We take care of my mom. We "help" out.

So, why did I go to see "The Help," knowing it would dredge up painful memories? My friend, longtime "NCIS" executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson (along with actors Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding) were appearing after the Philadelphia screening of "The Help" to talk about their new Lucas action-adventure feature film called "Red Tails."

So I went to see "The Help" to have a seat up front when the credits ended and Charles came on stage. Charles introduced me to the Lucas marketing people. I got to see my friend and put in a plug to premiere "Red Tails" in Fayetteville in January.

I'm glad I saw "The Help." The characters were nothing like the typical woe-is-me black maids we've come to know and dread. The women and men, white and black, were nuanced in a way that didn't detract from the realism, sadness and treachery of Jim Crow Mississippi.

And surprisingly, it made me and the rest of the audience laugh for days. It had a "Driving Miss Daisy" feel, with more attitude and an expectation that viewers were intelligent.

I don't care about the complaints that a white writer got to write a black woman's story. I don't care that, yes again, we people of color seem to star only in films from way back in history and cannot be stars set in our own time. I don't care that they fudge history (the film takes place in the '60s while the portrayed murder of Emmett Till occurred in 1955).

"The Help," for me, proved an unexpected tribute to my grandmother Hannah, my aunts Grace and Idolly, and my mom Rosetta.

When you go from being a Belizean Beauty of the Bay to bathing white folks' infants in the Jim Crow South, few people applaud.

But, when the audience gave a standing ovation at the end of "The Help," they were clapping for my mom.

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