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.


September Williams, MD-Writer said...

Bioethicsscreenreflections.com recognizes that among the most important screens is that of the small computer screen as discussed on this blog relative to the technology in the piece on HUGO. A new online journal, Hektoen International, shows real promise exemplified by the choice of important works.

Please see the brilliant literary artistic and photographic work of dear friend and colleague Dr. Irene Martinez. Irene is a physician and clinical medical ethicist. She shows the Disappeared/Always With Us. This work opposes Torture and political repression while affirming human rights and the indefatigable resilience of creativity. Here is the link:

Hektoen International
Desaparecidos1 is a series of drawings and photographs depicting part of my own and other people's experiences during the Argentine military dictatorship in the nineteen-seventies. I found that words were not enough to express what my family, the Argentinean people, and I experienced during the ...

September Williams, MD-Writer said...

This is a note from Lighiah Villalobos the screenwriter of La Misma Luna/Under the Same Moon, a film reference on The Help Blog above:

thank you for sharing. And in case you wanna share something else... :-)

My new TV movie premiers on ABC this Sunday night, 4/22 at 9pm, 8 central. It's called "Firelight" and it's based on a real life young women who join a firefighting program to better themselves. It was produced by Alicia Keys and stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. Written by a Latina, me, and directed by an African-American woman, Darnell Martin (Cadillac Records, Their Eyes Were Watching God) Girl Power!