Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Helping Hand

"...expressing anger rarely solves anything. It makes us feel powerful but draws a line between people subtly reinforcing one's own "correctness" at the expense of others. We often possess the same noxious qualities (expressed differently) as we target in others."

This quote came from Peter Coyote in a recent Sun Magazine response he made to a letter critical of something he said in a featured interview. It's problematic. It begs the question, aren't some things correct?
What if someone expressed anger about being held in slavery? What about anger over being victimized? Or getting in touch and finally expressing anger over being scammed, or dismissed with condescension? Are we that sensitive to the word correct that we can't allow the expression of anger?
I know that anger is not an end in itself, but I think it's a step toward mental health if handled appropriately and without vengeance. Yes, I agree with Mr. Coyote that we do tend to project our emotions onto others. But there are times we don't. Can you imagine saying that any one enslaved, either literally or figuratively, is projecting their anger onto their oppressor. The noxious quality is not a two way street here.
There's been a bit of anger expressed lately over two offerings in the world of entertainment. The latest revival of Porgy and Bess and the film version of The Help have polarized many viewers and critics. Both productions are taking flak for stereotyped African-American characters. Not surprisingly, people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are split in their views. Since both are works of fiction, some would say this is a non-issue. I've recently read the novel version of The Help, and last weekend did see the film, so I'll confine my remarks to that work. Interestingly enough, there are many similarities that aptly apply to Porgy and Bess.

Yes, there are stereotypes. If you have a black character that passionately likes fried chicken, or looks like a "mammy" or is named Leroy and batters his wife, people will notice. No matter that every stereotype possesses a kernel of truth somewhere. It's still problematic, and worth noting. But The Help goes a bit further than that, weaving fact into the fictionalized world of it's players.  For example, it briefly deals with the violent, untimely death of Medgar Evers.  The domestic workers, whose experiences contribute to the oral history that ultimately gets published, never once talk about public accommodations, segregated schools, or voting rights. Nevertheless, it's a touching story that does detail the complicated interplay of race relations in the South at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Every film dealing with a historical era says equally as much as the era in which it was made. You can sometimes see this literally in the dress and dialogue of 50s films about the Greek or Roman empires. You can find it in some of the classic Westerns too. (One of my Jr. High teachers used to tell us to watch for Indians with blue eyes and vaccination scars on their arms.) I suppose if The Help is guilty of anything it paints a saccharine picture of the early 60s, complete with Golden Oldies like the Twist and Watusi. We don't see the dead bodies, the blood stains, or the verbal venom spewing from distorted mouths. We don't hear about missing civil rights workers.  We aren't exposed to the speeches of politicos like George Wallace or Strom Thurman. A few well placed epithets among the magnolias is all. Still, the film has the potential to educate, and that can't be bad.

No comments: