THE HELP: Racism v. Justice and the Right to Protest

-->The film, THE HELP is a historical fiction, close enough to the truth to raise moral concern.  It is mostly about the development of a book revealing the impact of racism on black and white families. The film is adapted from the Kathryn Stockett novel set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. It's the rising phase of the civil rights movement. The story is viewed primarily through the eyes of women.  Central to THE HELP is unequal risk of harm to black women when compared with white women.

To the films credit, intentional or not, it also stimulates moral questions about the ethical conflicts inherent in the telling of other peoples' stories. Ethical concerns include adaptation from traditional oral storytelling, to novels, plays and films.  Necessarily, these adaptations raise worries about ownership of the intellectual property conveyed. In bioethics, we would consider these issues primary conflicts between the principles of autonomy (the right to do what is in one’s own best self-interest) and justice (the obligation to insure equal distribution of risks and benefits.   Finally, audiences believe in the accuracy of historical fiction. They are not dissuaded from this belief by the above the line statement, "based on..."   Those whose characters have been captured in fiction films are often angered by the ways in which they have been distorted by creative license.  Historically, artists have had the right to re-write history, even in ethically charged situations. 

THE HELP has an outstanding ensemble cast of both black and white women. In the film, Abline (Viola Davis) is a black woman who works as a domestic for a white family. She has done this kind of work since she herself was an adolescent.  The child in the family, a girl who is maybe three years old, is being emotionally and physically abused by her own mother. The mother of is viciously insecure. Abline cares for this child's health and dignity leaving her absent from the needs of her own family and community.  Abline's autonomy is thus compromised. In Abline's absence, her own son's life is brutally taken as a direct result of racism. Yet, Abline continues to maximize her humanity with regard to the child she cares for in the white family.  Davis eloquently, expresses the double bind black women, and others working as domestics, find themselves in.  Abline is forced to act against her self-interest, assuming a high risk while doing so.

A  Kennedy era white college graduate, Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns home to Memphis after having obtained a university education. Compared with her hometown peers, Skeeter is a feminist.  She struggles to want what her white southern culture demands for her, a man and a family. Those wants don't stick.  She really prefers a writing career. Skeeter's broader exposure leaves her questioning by the racism, sexism and classism of her childhood friends.  Like a good creative opportunist, in the film, she sees in Abline the story that can make her publishing mark; telling the story of black maids in their own words. This insight occurs in immediate context of the murder of Meager Evers, the African American, WWII Veteran and civil rights leader.

The character of the publisher (Mary Steamvirgin) insists that Skeeter not just edit but write part of the book. This is a small homage to the intellectual property conflict. The publisher's demand forces honesty about the strength of the bond between domestics and the children they care for. Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) is dealing with cancer, imposing on her the end of life task of looking at her own inadequacies. Chief among these inadequacies is the moral cowardess she showed through vicious racism directed at the black woman who raised Skeeter (Cicely Tyson).  

THE HELP is a film tied to Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studio. There is a long drama between the film industry and the struggle around racism. In 2000, Spielberg refused to receive the "D.W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award" of the Director's Guild of America unless the name was changed. Once having leveraged change of the award's name to the "DGA Life Time Achievement Award", he spoke of the elephant in the room during his acceptance speech.  Paraphrasing, he believed "You can honor the evolution of film grammar, without honoring the name of a known racist.”   We don't always get genius in the package we want, but we don't have to be happy about that fact. The history of the struggle against racism has been a series of small changes with occasional big peaks. Having a filmmaker of Mr. Spielberg's heft stand against racism is significant in an industry that has so much power.  He also mentioned “that yet to occur moment when an African American director first wins the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.” What a tragedy it would be if that director was forced to reject the honor - because it was named after a racist.

How is THE HELP relevant to the applied bioethics called clinical medical ethics? Justice is the most complex of the three ethical principles which influence ethical medical care.   Beneficence and autonomy are thought to be the other most relevant principles. Justice, though we know it when we see it, seeing it is rare.  We speak more of injustice. Injustice is defined as: designation of risk and benefits to specific persons in a way that causes them disproportionate harm.  Racism is a typical manifestation of injustice. Injustice almost always exists on a geopolitical historical scale. This scale is hard to manage in a clinical setting but we see its repercussions daily; post-traumatic stress, loss of self-worth, depression and diseases of health disparities. Among these diseases are: tuberculosis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, and substance abuse.  Injustice blocks learning, motivation and frequently causes death at the hands of self or others. The fundamental transhumanistic/public health principle underpinning clinical medicine is the obligation to use science to strive for better and longer life.  If injustice impedes meeting this obligation, it is logical that justice could reverse the harm. Hence, clinical medical ethicists find injustice so difficult to manage; we are dragged into the fight for justice.

Viola Davis' portrayal of Abline's grief from the death of her son, takes a bite out of the American public's heart, like none since Cicely Tyson's son was taken from her in ROOTS (1977).  I saw THE HELP at a small neighborhood theater in a mostly Asian community of San Francisco.  A blockbuster movie was opening on the screen in the empty adjacent theater.   On that Saturday night, there was a music festival in Golden Gate Park a few blocks away, drawing thousands. Yet, THE HELP had a fairly full, predominantly neighborhood Asian audience. The mostly Latina domestic hotel workers on strike downtown, demonstrated outside of a major Cineplex where THE HELP was screening. Their placards truthfully stated, "We are the Help!"  People identify with the characters in this film across racial and ethnic lines. Many viewers are connected by class or family history.

While Viola Davis' Abline is unrelenting, direct, unapologetic, controlled and rational, Octavia Spencer's portrayal of Minny provides brilliant comic and common sense relief.  In Spencer's hands, Minny is reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel in GONE WITH THE WIND (Flemming, 1939); speaking lines McDaniel could only have wished to speak. Those who argue that racism in America has been done to death on film should note this fact: in February 2012, Black history Month, Minny or Mammy remains the preferred African American woman big screen portrayal compared with the rarer, Abline roles. 

There have been more strides in small screen narratives toward expanding the types of roles for African Americans and other peoples of color. The film, DANCING IN SEPTEMBER (Rock-Blithewood, 2000) promotes this phenomenon. Films other than THE HELP, like LA MISMA LUNA/UNDER THE SAME MOON (Riggen, 2007), have improved understanding of racism, sexism and classism directed at women. The unconscionable cost of making and distributing good film continues to preclude some of the most socially relevant creative works from being viewed cross racially. This is unfortunate as film has quickly, and more broadly, influenced change in the moral spectrum than any other art form. For now, those who struggle for justice are thankful enough for THE HELP.

THE HELP (35mm) directed by Tate Taylor. (2011) USA. Touchstone Pictures. 146 min.

Roots (miniseries) produced by Stan Margulies. (1977) USA. ABC. 8 episodes / 720 min.

GONE WITH THE WIND (35 mm) directed by Victor Flemming and others (1939) USA. MGM/Warner Bros. 238 min.

DANCING IN SEPTEMBER (35 mm) directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood (2000) USA. HBO. 106 min.

  LA MISMA LUNA/UNDER THE SAME MOON (35 mm) directed by Patricia Riggen. (2007) USA. Fox Searchlight Pictures/The Weinstein Company. 106 min.


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN: Commodification, Frailty and Injustice

In an exchange of a few weeks ago about a recently dead star, I made the comment that I stand by: "If you consider a person a God, when they fall to the ground they are a Monster." People, in general should just be people; just equal.  To be considered more or less than a person is an injustice.  Marilyn Monroe was a woman who was frequently treated more or less than a person and so unjustly.   In her youth as a foster child, she was less. In her stardom, she was more. Approaching her death she was less again. 
My week with Marilyn (Michelle Williams) is based on two books by Colin Clark. It is adapted for the screen by writer Adrian Hodges and director Simon Curtis. The film shows Marilyn as frail and dependent.   It is under these circumstances that she spent time with Colin Clark (a young gofer for Sir Lawrence Olivier during the period when movie The Prince and the Showgirl was being made.
Smart people do not tolerate injustice well, when trapped they will chew off their paw to get out of a trap.  History is replete with examples, among them Marilyn Monroe. Until fame changes, its price won't. Fame is unsustainable because, in the language of Bioethics, the people who make fame use people as a commodity.  This commodity model is a slave model. When one slave dies the fame industry buys another.
Norma Jean Baker was 36 years old when she died.  Any college student with interest in child and family psychology could understand how Norma Jean Baker came to be found dead in August 1962 from probable suicide.  She was set up for the fall through rejections and abuses during her early years, followed by rejections and abuses during her years of fame. 
The Norma Jean Baker well depicted in the My Week With Marilyn was frail, vulnerable and misunderstood by all but a "lackey."  There is also an homage to Marilyn Monroe in The Help (Taylor, 2011). In this film it was also "the help"   that understood and protected her.  In both films she was married to a man she loved, but feared would not love her if he knew her truths. In both films she was pregnant but unable to be a viable mother. In both films she turned to working class people for support; her acting coach, production assistant, body guard, maid.  The outcome in The Help homage to Marilyn Monroe would have been so much more a better fate than the one actual befalling the real woman. Accuracy in historical biographies often takes a backseat to narrative, but these threads of Marilyn's reality stream through all her biographical leads.
Marilyn Monroe, though often reflected as dependent and frail, lived a dichotomous life. She supported and identified with working class and poor people. She was allied to significant forces in the left political and art movement; Arthur Miller, the Actors Studio as cases in point.  She openly supported   banning nuclear bombs, racial equality, human and civil rights. Her personal sexuality was in the feminist vein.  Further, she abhorred the HUAAC, just as openly as she embraced her causes. As a star, her job was to be a sexual commodity, yet as factory worker her photos are thought to have been a part Rosie the Riveters' evolution.  In her personal life, her fertility was at odds with her sexuality and her love relationships tenuous.  This woman's life was a perpetual double bind of competing interest.
Bioethical Conflict is considered irresolvable. If resolvable, it likely was not a real conflict.  Norma Jean Baker was caught in a real ethical conflict. Like many famous people, she died without resolution: Wealth and Fame, allowed her to do good. Fleeing Wealth and Fame would doom her to the poverty of self and finances from which she came.  My Week With Marilyn  is a road map to and for the fallen star.
My Week With Marilyn. (35 mm) directed by Simon Curtis. USA. The Weinstein Company. 2011. (101 min)

The Help (35 mm) directed by Tate Taylor. USA. Touchstone Pictures. 2011. (146 min)

The Prince and the Showgirl (35 mm) directed by Lawrence Olivier.  USA.
Warner Bros. 1957 (115 min)



Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close helps to further clarify the Peace Genre Film. It shows that Peace Genre Films contain all the elements of tragedy, violence, self hate, and despair without surrendering to them. In 2010, I began this blog with the identification of the Peace Genre Film.   La Mission (Bratt, 2010) was the prototype. Among core components of this genre are corralling passionate spirit and channeling it toward Peace.  Peace Genre Films are not about one section of humanity but about all of humanity. Humanity is reflected by the cross racial, ethnic and cultural people in the film.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer's book is adapted for screen by writer Eric Roth and Director Stephen Dawdry.  Instead of beckoning viewers to embrace decades, as in Roth's earlier Forest Gump and Benjamin Button, this story deals only with a paltry two years.  These are the two years after a child’s father and hundreds of others die simultaneous violent deaths. It is a story of a child's perception, complicated grief, guilt and redemption. Without the epic time span, but adorned with exquisite cinematography, Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close delivers the force of a magnum opus with simplicity.  A man (Tom Hanks), and his son Oskar ( Thomas Horn), believe in the lost mythical sixth borough of New York City. They are engaged in a scientific process they pretend will locate the borough when all hell breaks loose.

Mass deaths shake the collective consciousness to the core. How is it that the individual consciousness frequently does not measure the quake?  Peace in the world of bioethics is a universal “good,” and as such can only be held by the humanity as a whole -- not the individual. The arch rival of peace is Hate. Hate is manifest in war, terrorism and torture among other venues.   As a corollary, hate also is held by humanity as a whole. The magic of this film is the believable portrayal of Oskar  suspends disbelief, turning hate into peace; water into wine.

Oskar is shown to have characteristics of extreme sensitivity, untamable intellect, obsessive physical stamina and unique adaptive mechanism to stress. These characteristics are reminiscent of the wonders of Autism Spectrum children or is it the human spectrum? There are a number of reasons to think that autism, in an alternate universe, is a superpower.  Post 911 period seems as much an alternate universe as any. Converting abnormal to supra-normal expands the humanity of the film beyond, race, class, ethnicity and disability.  In the past year, television has introduced Autism Spectrum youths in the Science Fiction series Alpha's and the prime time melodrama Parenthood. This inclusivity appears seamless in this film.
Oskar's unique skills allow him to fly under the radar of many who would otherwise be guarded with a strange inquisitor.  The adults around Oskar display a fragility. They include his widowed mother (Sandra Bullock), his mute grandfather ( Max Von Sydow) and a divorcing wife (Viola Davis). The device enabling Oskar’s final dialog with his dead father is in the hands of the estranged wife.   These adults both protect and allow Oskar  to process his grief and theirs.  The guardians' relationships to each other are eloquently foreshadowed by subtle consistency in lighting and delivery tone.  This happens in much the way a good clinical team provide the a consistent  message of support to those suffering from grief. 

This is a  film narrative of enormous depth, exquisite construction and profoundly linked ensemble.  While showing the origin of post traumatic stress syndrome in hate, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a Peace Genre Film because it underscores not only what mass tragedy takes but what cannot be stolen from the human spirit.

Extremely Loud and Incredible Close. 35 mm. Directed by Stephen Dawdry. USA. Warner Bros. 2011. (129 min)

LA MISSION. 35 mm. Directed by Peter Bratt. USA. Screen Media Ventures. 2010 (117 min)

Read on this blog site read:
LA Mission:Prototype for the  Peace  Genre ( 2010 blog)
Bioethics/Film Literacy: Lighten Up slides on lighting,  slides .055 to .060 on  shots size and actor postion to convey tone.

Also Read:
Foer, J S.  ( 2005) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin.  Boston. pp 368


MONEYBALL: Cultural Survival and Bioethics

This is a masculine story punctuated with love of a child, work, and sports. Adapted from the 2003 book by Michael Louis, Steven  Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin wrote a script which highlights Ben Miller's delicate directorial touch.  Talk about your mixed genres, this is sports movie that is also a chick flick date movie and it's a drama. Brad Pitt's performance in Moneyball is one of reflected inner conflict, much like the struggle of the city of Oakland where the story is set.

A bioethicist, notoriously without interest in professional sports, this story ”had me" at the point where less than stellar  players were intentionally recruited for the Oakland Athletics.   Some of us recall being in 5th grade; the last picked.  Who knew that a slow runner, lousy catcher and horrid pitcher could bat the daylights out of a ball?  The bioethical message of this film is that equality is not sameness. Diverse players can be treated as equally valuable despite their different skills. This is not really a story adverse to commodification of professional sport players.  Instead, it underscores how to interpret the value of a player within the game.

Moneyball reverses two classic paradigms; champions are champions and divorced people with children are doomed to battle.  Scientific principles, manifest in the computer nerd statistician, (Jonah Hill) alter the view of champion players.  Here, intelligent use of technology triumphs over stardom.  The statistician is the device of equality.  He shifts the team general manager's (Brad Pitt's) world view. The two inept losers, using their divergent realities become confident and capable, foreshadowing the same conversion for the team itself.   Scouts and other senior team staff are brilliantly portrayed as recalcitrant established old guard needing to be overthrown, as in any cultural or political evolution. They are all dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

In bioethics, culture can be either the greatest friend of beneficence (what we ought to do with knowledge) or its enemy supporting static influences.  For the purposes of this discussion culture is: how a group defines itself. Cultural evolution is imperative to cultural survival. Cultures, which do not change, die. Moneyball first defines baseball culture, sets up a device for change and demonstrates the evolution of the culture.

There are only two women in the film and one of them is a ten year old girl (Kerris Dorsey).  The general manager's ex-wife (Robin Wright) lives in a Los Angeles impeccably precious designed environment, a stark contrast to the grit of the baseball locker room.  She and her new husband are set up by their ice palace as dis-empathetic; just this side of sociopathy.  The "oh so wise for her years" daughter of the estranged parents is the device which shifts away from the culture of hostility between these adults.  Indifference to change, frequent in divorce, is demonstrated as untenable when caring for the love of one's life. The parent child relationship parallels the game of baseball in the shift to a more modern cooperation.  

The worldwide depressed economy has nearly murdered the independent film genre.  Moneyball’s skillful crafting endures the poverty and resuscitates the art form with a jolt.

Moneyball (35 mm) Ben Miller. 2011.  USA. Columbia Pictures. 133 min.

Lewis, Michael. Moneyball:The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. W.W. Norton and Company. 2003.

For more ethics of professional sport also read:

Littman, John.  Crashing Augusta: Real life tales of sports, men and murder. Snowball Narrative. Mill Valley. 2010.

THE DESCENDANTS meets DARK VICTORY: Medical Ethics and Sudden Death

Bette Davis' character Judith Trahern, in the film Dark Victory (Goulding, 1939) was ahead of the times in her resistance to the medicalization of her death. She showed the autonomy only allowed a spoiled willful young heiress. The Descendants (Payne, 2011) is a film taking the dialog about the end of life to another level.  We now know that Kubler Ross' five stages of dying are also the stages of grief.  As with Citizen Ruth, a film about a glue sniffing pregnant woman, director Alexander Payne again demonstrates deft handling of complex bioethical issues in the Descendants.   The Descendants is a progressive sequel to Dark Victory. A Husband and Father (George Clooney) is heir to virgin Hawaiian land. He is obligated to do what is best for it and for his tragically terminally injured wife.  He takes his obligations seriously but with emotion not previously shown in men. Clooney's performance demonstrates, in contrast to Bette Davis', the profound inelegance of dealing with conflict within families at ethically charged transitions.  Dark Victory and The Descendants each provide a snap shot of knowledge about these transitions as understood in their eras.   

The Descendants is about a Father and his two children dealing with a tragic accident which rips the mother from the family. The film is unique because the star (the character who undergoes the most change) has no lines. She is pictured water skiing for a few seconds, establishing that she is vibrant, athletic and sensual. She spends the majority of the movie comatose in a hospital bed until finally removed from medical supports.  However, her arch controls the other members of the classic upper class American Family.  The first born child, in late adolescence, is not ready for the world and wallows in self-indulgences bordering rack and ruin.  

The second child, at ten, is a trooper and may be the only adult pictured in most of the film.   The father of the family is left to the task of enacting his wife's advance directive.  As instructed by the family physician, he gathers friends to say goodbye to his wife. He is detoured by figuring out with whom his wife was having an affair. The latter project brings him closer to his eldest daughter at a point where the issues of anger are shared between them. The affair becomes a transition object acceptable to direct their rage. Parent and child then proceed together down the path to acceptance of the mother's death.   

What else is different about the Descendants? Instead of being a maudlin hand wringer, The Descendants is a comedy - in the same vein that Citizen Ruth was a comedy.  It is also cross cultural (Hawaiian) and evokes a responsibility to conserve memories of families and the environment. Finally, the Descendants deals with sudden death. Deaths are sudden only because in current medicine, some people who appear fatally injured do occasionally survive. These occasions lead to an expectation of survival, and when it does not occur the death becomes "sudden."  Historically, all death was sudden except that from old age.   

Clinical medical ethics, an applied arm of bioethics, often deals with issues associated with the edges of life; birth, illnesses that leave people lingering between life and death, individualism vs. community, and end of life transitions.   Some deaths are known to increase the risk of complex grief; sudden, violent, mass death or those involving children or young people.  Complex grief looks clinically like a post traumatic syndrome because. The Descendants brings an understanding of complex grief in the setting of traumatic sudden death in the presence of the modern tool of autonomy, the advance directive.  The screen writers move Clooney's character through the process of grief, in the best ways to prevent prolonged grief - they demonstrate beneficence or what we know ought to be done in such situations.   

This process of grieving begins from the moment that a life threatening illness is apparent.  Family and friends of those dying from chronic illness or injuries have time to grieve.  In sudden death scenarios, the psyche of loved ones does not have advance warning which allows them to organize the task of their grief.  Complicated Grief manifest itself as emotional illness, substance abuse, increased stress resulting in cardiovascular disease, insomnia and so on. Many hospital settings provide services to improve end of life and palliative care (to make peace with death and pain). However, we know that complex grief is only apparent greater than six months out from the primary event. Frequently, the need to track complex grief symptoms is buried by the curative model of care instead of being exposed by the palliative model.  

The Descendants is a good example of how bioethics astute medical teams deal with the risk for complex grief. In the film, a doctor gently notifies the husband of his wife's brain dead state.  The Husband responds, "But, she is going to be okay, right?"  This is a frequent denial response in such situations. The doctor realizes that the husband can't hear what has been said.  With a grief counselor at his side, the physician simply repeats the facts and leaves the father to begin to absorb the reality. However, the grief counselor stays to support the father. The primary care doctor, with the long view of the family, is clear and decisive about the mother's condition and her advance directives. He charges the husband with tasks which will move the grief process along; gathering friends and family who need to say goodbye. Further, without clubbing the viewer over the head, a memorial is created through preservation of virgin lands commemorating the life force of the now broken family.   

The Descendants is one of a few movies about death and dying demonstrating doctors taking a back seat. It is accurate in its demonstration of best practice in end of life care. The health care team sets in motion circumstances that foster  the family dealing with their own grief. 

Dark Victory (35 mm) directed by Edmund Goulding. 1939. USA. Warner Bros. 104 min.   

Citizen Ruth (35 mm) directed by Alexander Payne. 1996. USA. Miramax. 103 min.   

The Descendants (35 mm) Alexander Payne. 2011. USA.  Fox Searchlight Pictures. 115 min.   

Also Read:   

Kauai, H. (2010) The Descendants. Random House. New York. 283 pp.  

Ramsey, P. (1980) Ethics at the edges of life.   Yale University Press. New Haven. 370 pp.   

Housley, J.  Beutler, L.  ( 2007) Treating Victims of Mass Disaster and Terrorism. Hogrefe & Huber Publishers. Cambridge. 72 pp.   

Pfeiffer M.  and Quadrelli, S. 2011)  Paternalism and beneficence: Dark Victory  in  The Picture of Health.  eds. Colt, H. , Quadrelli, S. and Friedman, L. Oxford University Press. New York.  p. 56- 60.   

Quill, E. et al (2010) .  Grief and Bereavement in  Primer of Palliative Care 5th edition.  American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. AAHPM. Glenview.   p. 160-163.