Buying the help: We’ll postpone our report on the Paul Waldman piece till tomorrow. Yesterday, we lost some time—but gained a fascinating experience—by going to see The Help.
We thought about the film all night long and into the morning. A bit of background:
We knew nothing much about the book; we only knew there had been a debate about its use of non-standard English. Regarding the movie, we knew that Oprah liked it a lot—and that Melissa Harris-Perry did not. We watched the Last Word last week on opening day, as she expressed her misery.
To watch the whole segment, just click here. But Lawrence O’Donnell’s introduction conveys the basic idea:
O’DONNELL (8/10/11): Oprah Winfrey tweeted today, "Hey Tweets, if you liked the book The Help, you`ll delight in the movie. Opens today, can’t wait to hear what you think."
Because the book generated some controversy and the movie is already generating more, we asked Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry to join the opening day crowds at the theater and answer Oprah’s question, “What do you think?”
If you followed Melissa’s Tweets today, this is what you saw as she tweeted from the theater.
"I’m one hour into The Help movie. I’m not sure I can make it through to the end, arrgh."
"I read the book. I knew, but the images!"
Then, “Hard to tell whether it’s the representation of black women or white women that’s most horrible.”
And then, "Thank God magical black women were available to teach white women, raise their families and to write books."
And then, "And thank God plucky white girls could give black women the courage to resist exploitation."
Then, "And man oh man, was Jim Crow full of giggling good times in the kitchen."
Then, "Oh, I loves me some fried chicken. This line was just uttered in The Help. Seriously."
Then, "I just timed it. Miss Skeeter’s date got the same amount of screen time as Medgar Evers’ assassination. Sigh."
Then, "The first real moment, violent arrest of black woman."
And finally, "The Help movie reduces systematic violent racism, sexism, and labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk."
Melissa also sent us an e-mail saying "I think MSNBC is going to have to give me worker’s comp for putting me through this."
Joining me now is Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC contributor and author of a new book released this week, "Sister Citizen; Shames, Stereotypes and Black Women in America," She’s also the Last Word’s film critic.
Thanks for joining me tonight, Melissa.
Going in, we assumed we’d agree with Harris-Perry more than with dumb old Oprah. To our surprise, it totally didn’t happen. But then, we had caught a lucky break.
The film didn’t have us from hello, but it came very close. Thirty seconds in, we were moved and thrilled, just due to the narrator’s voice.
Later, we were moved and thrilled to see real-time footage of Medgar Evers on a TV screen in the film, as a group of characters watched him speak.
Have we ever seen Evers in a movie before? We’re fairly sure we haven’t.
The film is extended melodrama. Its central conceit is pretty silly—it collapses the Deep South civil rights era into a daring decision to write a book about the lives of black household workers. But that’s where our lucky break comes in, involving the people of Baltimore.
We went to the 3:50 show at the Rotunda, where tickets cost $5 all day on Tuesdays. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones chasing the five-dollar ducat in these imperfect times. When we arrived, the theater was packed. We grabbed a seat in the third row, between a black couple who may have been sixty and a pair of white women in their seventies.
We’d say the crowd was seventy percent black. (Emerging, we even saw some blackandwhitetogther!) And uh-oh! Despite the professor’s scruples, the crowd adored the film. They laughed and laughed at the film’s central joke, every time it reappeared (which was often). At the end of the film, the crowd applauded; we don’t see that happen a lot. We couldn’t help thinking of Brother Twain, describing the joyful noise of that circus crowd in wildest Arkansas. At one point, “everybody clapped their hands and went just about wild,” the narrator of Twain’s famous tale reports. He describes “the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down…and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment.”
Our professors may not admire the pleasure of hicks. But Twain found much to like there.
As it turned out, we were glad we went on a day when the showroom was packed. On our own, we wouldn’t have realized how good the film’s comedic sense is; without hearing Baltimoreans react as they did, we would never have understood the film’s perfect pitch. For ourselves, we found a lot to admire, and think about later, in the film’s endless episodes, all of which seemed to instruct us in a basic fact of life: In a society built on oppression, the wisdom and the decency will all run in one direction. Observing the decency of the film’s help, we thought of Dr. King’s description of the Montgomery town fathers after his home was bombed, with his wife and young daughter inside. This is from Stride Toward Freedom:
DR. KING (page 138): I could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”
I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectful and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural traditional under which they have grown—a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation—teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.
“Even their churches and ministers taught them that,” Dr. King wrote, in astonishment. Dr. King didn’t traffic in snark. But in this passage, unintentionally, he was saying, of his oppressors, that they lacked the good home training that had been dispensed in the homes and the churches of the black community.
For ourselves, we saw that same sad irony being expressed all through yesterday’s film.
We’ll disagree with the professor this time. She did say one thing to O’Donnell which made us wonder a bit, in real time:
HARRIS-PERRY: What this movie does in 2011 is it completes the work that happened and started in 1923, when the Americans—the Daughters of the American Confederacy, along with Senator John Williams from Mississippi, found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, which had just been dedicated in 1922.
This was the same Senate that refused to pass the Dire Answered Lynching Bill [so rendered in transcript]. In other words, a Senate that allowed black men to be lynched without federal oversight, to allow them to be lynched with no consequence in the south, at the same time had the time to pass a bill that said we can erect a statute to Mamie.
Now this is not granite and it`s not on federal land. But it’s the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives and the pain, the anguish, the rape, the lynching that they experienced.
For that reason, it’s not artistic. It’s ahistorical and it’s deeply troubling.
O’DONNELL: Melissa, every review I read today made some of the points that you’ve made, without the historical specificity that you can get to. But also, every one of them said Viola Davis was just incredible in her portrayal on this movie.
HARRIS-PERRY: She is, and what kills me is that in 2011, Viola Davis is reduced again to playing a maid. I want to see that exquisite acting to the kind of roles that Viola Davis truly deserves.
O’DONNELL: MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry. Thank you very much for joining us tonight, Melissa.
Wow! On Broadway, Davis has won two Tony awards; she has also been Oscar-nominated. No one made her play the role she plays in this film. Perhaps she didn’t think playing a maid was beneath her human dignity. (It’s hard to imagine that she and Octavia Spencer won’t both receive Oscar nods for playing the help in this movie.)
These are tough topics, and Harris-Perry’s perspective and knowledge are important. That said, the professors need to be careful! They’ve been defiantly useless down through the years, even as their salaries have risen and their workloads have decreased. Careful, professors! Yesterday, mingling with the proles, we heard an ugly rumor.
We heard that the sequel to this film may be called, “The Adjuncts.” Everyone would know that’s unfair. But that’s the world we all live in.
Special report: There’s no surviving the Times!
PART 2—A TALE OF TWO FACTS (permalink): You have to pity the poor subscriber to the New York Times.
Consider the complete confusion they must be feeling this week.
On Monday, the newspaper’s Nobel Prize-winning columnist penned a pithy piece headlined, “The Texas Unmiracle.” He denounced the current, scripted claims about the miraculous Texas economy. Those claims are a myth, feller said:
KRUGMAN (8/15/11): So what you need to know is that the Texas miracle is a myth…
It's true that Texas entered recession a bit later than the rest of America, mainly because the state's still energy-heavy economy was buoyed by high oil prices through the first half of 2008. Also, Texas was spared the worst of the housing crisis, partly because it turns out to have surprisingly strict regulation of mortgage lending.
Despite all that, however, from mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.
In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent.
Wow! Unemployment stands at 8.2 percent in Texas! “If this picture doesn't look very much like the glowing portrait Texas boosters like to paint, there's a reason,” Krugman wrote—“the glowing portrait is false.”
At this point, a Times subscriber might have thought he understood the state of play in Texas. But uh-oh! The very next day, on his paper’s front page, he encountered a headline affirming a “Texas jobs boom.” And uh-oh! If he started to read the report, that 8.2 percent unemployment rate was nowhere to be found:
KRAUSS (8/15/11): In Texas Jobs Boom, Crediting a Leader, or Luck
Texas is home to at least one-third of the jobs created nationwide since the recession ended. The state's economy is growing about twice as fast as the national rate. Home prices have remained stable even as much of the country has seen sharp declines.
Is Texas lucky, or has the state benefited from exceptional leadership?
In paragraph 4, the reader seemed to be told that there really is a “Texas miracle.” This lengthy, front-page report simply asked if Governor Perry deserves full credit.
Of course, different writers will often assess situations in different ways. But in this case, Times subscribers may feel like they’re suffering from whiplash. In reading Krugman and then his colleague Krauss, they found themselves confronting very different facts, which led to very different conclusions.
If those subscribers aren’t confused, they simply aren’t reading their newspapers.
What explains the contradictory frameworks driving the Krugman and Krauss reports? Why are subscribers forced to sift through such confusion?
We would answer that question two ways:
First: In the case of the Krauss report, a Times reporter allowed Rick Perry to “dictate an economic narrative on his own terms,” a phrase which comes right out of Krauss’ third paragraph. “Even before he formally entered the race over the weekend, Mr. First: Perry and his allies set out to dictate an economic narrative on his terms,” Krauss notes at that point. As we look at the way Krauss structured his piece, we see that he let Perry do that.
Second: From that unfortunate starting point, the confusion only spreads as the liberal world just sits there and takes it, refusing to challenge this very high-profile, dictated news report.
In what way did Krauss let Perry “dictate an economic narrative on his own terms?” Consider the following pair of facts. The second fact is a direct quote from Krauss’ opening paragraph:
Fact: The unemployment rate in Texas stands at 8.2 percent.
Fact: “Texas is home to at least one-third of the jobs created nationwide since the recession ended.”
That second fact is a direct quote from Krauss’ opening paragraph. It’s also a standard Perry talking-point—a scripted claim which is robotically stated by all Perry supporters. As far as we know, that claim is factually accurate—but accurate claims can be grossly misleading. In this case, that accurate claim is used to support a pleasing headline, in which the reader is told that a “jobs boom” exists in Texas.
Question: Can a state really be in a “jobs boom” if its unemployment rate is 8.2 percent? The notion strikes us as absurdly far-fetched. For what it’s worth, that seems to be the way it struck the Nobel prize-winning Krugman too; he led with this fact as he argued that the “miracle” claim is a myth. Because Krauss is writing a front-page news report, you’d think he’d want to present all the basic relevant facts—but you have to read all the way to his twenty-fourth paragraph (out of 28 total) to encounter this unlovely fact about the Texas economy. And when you finally see that fact, Krauss lards it with Perry-friendly bullshit. The paragraph which appeared in the Times is perfect, Grade A horseshit:
KRAUSS (paragraph 24): This time around, the state has not escaped the downturn. The unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, a full percentage point below the national rate but still higher than other boom states like North Dakota and Wyoming, and Texas has one of the highest percentages of workers who are paid the minimum wage and receive no medical benefits.
Good God, this man (or his editor) is a hack! Accepting dictation from Perry again, Krauss repeats the claim that Texas is a “boom state” even as he (finally) tells you how high its unemployment rate is. He forgets to include other facts: That unemployment in North Dakota stands at three percent, not eight. That twenty-five states have lower unemployment rates than Texas does (there are only fifty states in all). That every state which borders Texas has lower unemployment.
Go ahead—reread that paragraph! That’s exactly how it looks when a candidate is allowed “to dictate an economic narrative on his own terms.”
Why did Krauss bury that unemployment rate so deep in his lengthy report? We can’t tell you, but the result represents a prime example of a dictated narrative. If you’re going to evaluate the claim that Texas is sporting a “jobs boom,” you pretty much have to account for that unattractive unemployment rate.
But Krauss buried that basic fact deep in his piece. Instead, he led with a rather tortured fact—a fact which has been a basic talking-point for supporters of Perry.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at that second fact—the fact with which Krauss led his piece. (“Texas is home to at least one-third of the jobs created nationwide since the recession ended.”) For today, let’s take a minute to pity the poor New York Times subscriber. If he sued the Times for whiplash, mightn’t a court think he had a good case? And by the way:
The liberal world just sat there and took it as this garbage sat above the fold of the Times. Millions of people saw that headline, whether they read Krauss’ piece or not.
In that headline, they read a Perry-dictated claim. Chris Hayes and his liberal colleagues all kept their pretty traps shut.
Tomorrow: Even more crap from the Times!