Adaptations, Analysis, Black women, cinema, Film, For Colored Girls, Hollywood, Movies, race relations, Reviews, The Help, Waiting to Exhale

The Help For Colored Girls Who Are Still Waiting to Exhale

“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis.  Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies.  We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy.  Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag.  The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us.  In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions.  Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between.  Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales.  As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.

Waiting to Exhale
 
Even though I was a fan of the book and looked forward to its release, Waiting to Exhale has become unwatchable over the years.  Much of what made it a compelling novel was discarded in the adaptation.  Though the movie featured four black women prominently, the underlying, not so subtle theme was:  White women are more desirable than black women.  The only two scenes worth revisiting feature Bernadine (Angela Bassett): the cathartic car burning and Bernadine’s encounter with James (Wesley Snipes) at a hotel bar.  Their too-brief interaction took the movie to a deeper dimension with unfulfilled promise.  Having read the sequel Getting to Happy, which is now in pre-production, I have no desire to see that as a film.  The good news is the novel is so atrocious that any adaptation will be an improvement.
 
For Colored Girls

Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience.  Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.  I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film.  My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm.  From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected.  His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience.  However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material.  His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés.   His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.

Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap.  The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed.  There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad.  There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities.  Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist.  Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue.  The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars.  Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline.  What a copout!  In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production.  I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen.  Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?

The Help

In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe.  Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid.  There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night.  Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs.  That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites.  That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.

“You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.” – Aibileen

Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success.  When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off.  Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility.  In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer.  She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks.  As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not.  That would have been more realistic.

“I found God in myself and I loved her.  I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange

Nothing But a Man

I discovered Nothing But a Man in college.  It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship.  Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff.  I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable.  However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself.  In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance.  She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self.  Now that’s a shero!  It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends.  This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore.  People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless.  I don’t need television and movies to affirm me.  There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.

 

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11 thoughts on “The Help For Colored Girls Who Are Still Waiting to Exhale”

  1. Brilliant analysis Cinema Nero. Your personal and intimate perspectives as an African American woman resonated with me as you built up to the sentiment that only real life is full of Sheros. Further, the erratic depictions, portrayals and other Hollywood mis-steps should not be treated as anything close to the truth, but merely as vehicles to make the establishment feel better about itself, at the expense of our great legacy of real Sheroes.
    Thank you for inspiring those who may not realize that they need only look in the mirror or their own family trees for that wisdom and light that they should follow.

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    1. True, we all have rich histories to be proud of. Some of those stories are so painful that they are not shared easily, if at all. So we walk around unaware of the heroism of those who are (or were) close to us. I hope more of us make an extra effort to learn from the elders and pass on their stories — and ours.

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  2. Kat,

    You are so on the mark re so many points. As usual! Love it. And even the title has that subversive wit of yours that I love! Though I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by “for colored girls…” (maybe it was my having seen a ‘diversity’ production at Loyola some years ago which had maybe one Black person it..I was prepared for something “different”). I like that you ask “why movies get made and framed in certain ways. You know my curiosity, or rather concern, is why certain stories get told, and others don’t. Nothing wrong with the “helpful black ladies” story being told, I think; the issue is that it gets so much airplay, people begin to see it as the only story…and the construction of sheros is invariably limited. I go back to Baldwin’s 1959 point: “I am less appalled that gunsmoke is produced, than that there are so many people who watch it”, and remember that what gets made (most) is what gets watched most. All about the bizness! but that is another story….. In any case, thanks for diggin’ deep and being the media analysis shero that you are!

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    1. Do people watch those shows/movies because they’re produced, or are the shows produced because people watch them? It’s like trying to figure out what came first — the chicken or the egg. I do believe there is a major effort underway to dumb down society from how we’re educated (emphasis on memorization versus critical thinking) to propaganda masquerading as news. Baldwin’s perceptions are still very relevant. We need only replace Gunsmoke with Basketball Wives.

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      1. So far no advance media screenings have been announced which is not a good sign. However the film has gotten fairly good reviews in the trades from screenings in France.

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  3. Great analysis, Cinema Nero! This type of discourse should be required in sociology, political science and history classes around the country.

    Although I have heard wonderful “buzz” about “The Help”, I’ve not seen the movie. From the trailer alone I knew that this would be another retread of the themes you so deftly deconstructed in your blog. The question for those who say that they long for more realistic portrayals of African American women is this, “Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is on this issue”?

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    1. I agree. It’s a waste of time to complain about the same things over and over again. Instead we can use our economic power to support the kinds of projects we want to see instead of settling for what is thrown at us. Black hair care products became a multi-billion dollar industry because of creative entrepreneurs who fulfilled needs that weren’t being addressed by hair product companies at that time. The same could be true for independent film production. However, community support is key.

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  4. I’m so drawn into the idea of the selflessness of Black women, and here are some of my thoughts.

    That selflessness that is embedded so deeply in Black women speaks so strongly to me. The fact that some feel so comfortable in their “own places,” i.e. caring for white women and often other Black women, strikes me as a bit of a paradox. I do agree that some are quite protective of their “own places” since their places are among the few things (for lack of a better word) that some do own. I draw this conclusion from both “Imitation of Life” and “The Help”. Sometimes the helpfulness and the taking of a “back seat” is simply a survival tool, much like sardonic laughter was with slaves, with those who struggle for civil rights, and with those who struggle to survive in almost any circumstance. Aibilene and Minnie’s implied destiny and Delilah’s strengths and virtues become their undoing. The paradox: even when we win, we lose.

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    1. Carolyn, you have raised a powerful point about the ways we sacrifice and survive. I am reminded of the Ohio mother who is currently seeking a pardon for the “crime” of sending her child to a better school in an outside district. How insightful it would be to explore what motivates and inspires these women, what keeps them going despite the odds and lack of encouragement. That perspective is usually missing from the narrative, unfortunately.

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