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This is where I’m choosing to spend my time these days.

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Messing Around with "The Help"

The Help.  And no, it’s not about making babies with former governor Schwarzenegger.

Have I read the book?  Do I have plans on seeing the movie?   Now the mere fact that my mother-in-law likes The Help should have been damning enough.  But I digress. Let me explain, in a very roundabout way, why I will not see The Help.

Truth be told, the issue of whether or not someone can opine about whether or not they’d see a film based upon a book they’ve not read is moot, in my opinion.  But it’s not easy for anyone who is a teacher to readily dismiss either, simply because in some respects, the movement of source material from book form to movie form is something that, at times, we deal with in classrooms each and every year.  If you think about the “Harry Potter” films, the recent release of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” this summer, or last year’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, inevitably, for teachers, there is the struggle between trying to work between literature appreciation of the source material and a student’s understanding of it, and then, how it competes with the movie version of the story–particularly if an author’s vision of a specific character runs up how a film chooses to portray a character on film, especially given the actor chosen.  Think this versus this.

What I think teachers forget, is that often, the movies are not a reflection of the book.  Take Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “All Summer in a Day”.  Here’s how what the ending looks like, from a PBS/Disney project called WonderWorks:


Not exactly the eviscerating ending of the original short story.  In my uninformed opinion, the story loses the power of the original work, in order to give the children a “feel good” experience at the end of the story.  Hollywood often operates in much the same way, for instance, in random conversation this past weekend, my wife and I were discussing the Disney denouement of The Little Mermaid versus the the original fairy tale.  Whatever the movie, whatever images or understandings that the reader derived through their interaction with the text gets replaced by the images to be found in the visual medium in which this story takes places on the screen, regardless of its size.  While I read fairy tales to my little girl, and she has several “wannabe” versions of princess cartoons as well, inevitably, the images or story wind up competing with the Disney version.

But that’s an entirely different subject.

Professor Carol Booth Olson, UCI Writing Project Co-Director in the Reading/Writing Connection (2007) notes “(w)hen people visualize, they often talk about making a movie inside their heads…” But, truthfully, while the meaning of a novel is controlled by only one person — the author — the meaning we get from a film is the result of a collaborative effort by a large number of people.   Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle sees it as a partnership:  “[y]ou create a partnership which creates a film together…you always look good as a director, you get all the credit, if you can achieve those good performances, but to do that you’ve really got to work together as a team.  When we start we always try to start as me, the writer and the producer, and then we expand it out into the cameraman and the designer and the editor. You try to keep as many people involved as you can, you know. Just from a purely practical basis, they work harder as a result if they feel involved. It makes it feel like it’s their project, and it really should because it is.”

For some viewers, film does not allow for the same freedom a novel does — to interact with the plot or characters by imagining them in our minds. This lack of interaction, for some, is often the most frustrating aspect of turning a novel (or short story) into a film.  On the other hand, a film’s visual images stimulate our perceptions directly, while written words do this indirectly. Reading the word “chair” requires a kind of mental “translation” that viewing a picture of a chair does not. Film is a more sensory experience than reading — besides verbal language, there is also color, movement, and sound. Yet film is also limited: for one thing, there are no time constraints on a novel, while a film must generally compress events into two hours or so–less, if we’re talking about a short story.

So, can I give my opinion about a movie based on a book that I haven’t read?  Yes, given there’s no requirement being made that I have to read the book prior to having bought my movie ticket, or prior to renting the DVD, etc.  Also too, having not read the book, I can therefore treat the film as a independent piece of literature, much as I would have done had I decided to have read the book.

Roger Ebert, ostensibly responding to the film “Thor”, but addressing the issues of film adaptations in general:

It is impossible for most critics to be familiar with the source material of most movies, and that doesn’t bother me. A movie must contain whatever the audience requires in order to enjoy it. It’s not required to be “faithful” to its source, as if adaptation were adultery.
And adaptation therefore means changes to the basic story line that might have originally emerged from the author.  HBO’s “True Blood” or Showtime’s “Dexter” are two examples of successful television programs, each derived from a series of novels that provide the world in which its characters inhabit.  But in both instances, the stories have diverged from its source material.  To expand upon what Ebert asserts, at that point, the audience must be allowed to enjoy the viewing experience on its own merits (or reject it, for that matter), as it stands alone.  That means that a character that has a small role in the books, might instead grow into his own in the television series, if the producers choose to take those characters into such a direction.  

For myself, I enjoyed the adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, while just hating the adaptation made of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.  On the other hand, James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line, made into the film of the same name by director Terence Malick back in 1997, was a disappointment in that I could see that many components of Jones’ original story–for instance, a homosexual encounter by two of the soldiers in the story that leads to a deadly betrayal later on–appeared to have been filmed, but in a film that had hours of footage (the original first cut of the movie was five hours long!), it had to be honed down to a more manageable time frame.  Nevertheless, I can still enjoy certain components of the film by divorcing myself from the idea that there was more out there that could have been added.  I can also “fill-in” those gaps by the background material that serves as the gap filling provided to me by Jones’ original novel.  

By extension, on the subject of James Jones, this same technique is somewhat harder in reconciling his From Here to Eternity with the classic 1953 film.  

Reversing the idea of book to film, there’s also the notion of seeing the film first, and then becoming interested enough to pursue the book afterwards.  Public Enemies , Michael Mann’s 2009 film, starring Johnny Depp, is one such personal example for me.  Another was Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-timers, which was the influence for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  In this latter instance, you can see how even minor deviance from the source material can change the book’s transition to the screen. 

Now the entire idea of even seeing The Help was never on my radar.  It generally is not something that I would seek out.  My wife, having the read the book, has expressed a desire to see it.  In fact, this past weekend, with Kate at Grandma’s, we are spent our entertainment dollars at the cinema, to see this.  The Help is playing at the same theater.  But the wife and I have agreements about what we’ll see together, which, thusly, frees up certain films for her to see with her friends.  

But my decision to eschew The Help, even if I had been attracted to the subject matter, would come down to a similar decision that I made when the 2002 John Woo-directed film Windtalkers was released.  I am the type that tends to measure his entertainment time by not simply going upon how a film might be hyped, but through the idea of reading film review and notices, especially if a film is supposed to be based upon a historical time period.  In Roger Ebert’s review of Windtalkers, he notes:  

“Windtalkers” comes advertised as the saga of how Navajo Indians used their language to create an unbreakable code that helped win World War II in the Pacific. That’s a fascinating, little-known story and might have made a good movie. Alas, the filmmakers have buried it beneath battlefield cliches, while centering the story on a white character played by Nicolas Cage. I was reminded of “Glory,” the story of heroic African-American troops in the Civil War, which was seen through the eyes of their white commanding officer. Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?

For whatever it’s worth, I liked the film Glory.  But it’s a point well-taken that I had not considered until I was doing the research for this response.  As much as I enjoyed Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes in the film, they truly should be secondary players.  Interestingly enough though, prior to considering the earlier film, Ebert’s concerns about Windtalkers are many of the same concerns that I have about The Help.  Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?

Now Ebert actually liked the film but had this to say:

I was drawn into the characters and quite moved, even though all the while I was aware it was a feel-good fable, a story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful. We don’t always go to the movies for searing truth, but more often for reassurance: Yes, racism is vile and cruel, but hey, not all white people are bad. 

Nevertheless, this point is reiterated by Matt Seitz at 

American historical films are forever refighting old wars, congratulating themselves for being on the right side, and encouraging viewers to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side, too. They view the war from the general’s tent up on a distant hill and imagine that they’re right in the thick of it. That’s how Paul Haggis’ “Crash” swept the Oscars in 2006 — by serving up a contemporary story of Los Angelenos who said and did brazenly racist things in public constantly, as if it were 1967 and everyone was wearing love beads, Afros and hard hats. The characters seemed crude and primitive, lacking in self-awareness, unenlightened; this made them easy to label, judge and dismiss. A variation on this strategy has enabled another race drama, “The Help,” to become an instant hit, a likely Oscar contender, and yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: “How did this affect white people?” and “Aren’t you glad you’re not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?”

 But what drew me to Seitz’s point-of-view was how he connected The Help to a long line of Hollywood “white-washing”–all the way back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and that includes incredibly popular films like Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side.   In many respects, it’s almost as if the minority character(s), be it Windtalkers, or The Help, are less important as characters, and more important as part of a story’s setting.  They remain static, rather than dynamic, because the “hero’s journey”, so to speak, can never involve a person of color, especially if such a story can’t be expected to draw all that well at the box office.  

After Seitz’ denunciation, comes this Kimberley Egonmwan broadside, in effect, trying to provide a response to some of my friends who are fans of the The Help, and who have asserted how the film speaks about friendships that crossed the barriers of the time.  I’m immediately taken aback from the standpoint that I find it difficult to see how a friendship between employer/employee could be seen as “equal”, especially given the historical time period, or the power relationship vis-a-vis intimidation, but Egonmwan is even more succinct on the same point:

It’s tiring that no matter how much she is abused, the black maid on the silver screen (in The Help, Viola Davis takes on this role, along with others) is shown to love her boss’ family as much, if not more than, her own. She takes care of their children as if they were her own, teaching and spoiling them. Her character finds her place in the household more honorable than anything she goes home to, because her home life is never developed to stand on its own merits. This is a total fantasy. This woman never existed in real life; why is she always in a movie?

Contrary to every blindly devoted black maid you’ve ever seen on screen, when a black woman took care of another person’s home and children, it was to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure the continued survival of her own family. There’s no question that these women quite often suffered indignities and slights at the hands of their superiors because, in truth, especially before and during the civil rights era, domestic service was only a few steps away from slavery. It was just about the only work a black woman was allowed to do. She cleaned other people’s homes to raise and educate her own children.

She knew firsthand – largely from the example set by the family for which she worked – that money did not equal class, and that pedigree did not ensure good breeding. She had to carry herself a certain way to combat the stereotypes that continually dogged her skin color. Her struggle produced the generations of black women that live today. And, just as I’m sure she would want, it’s time to put that character to rest.

Ironically, the idea of a family home life for a story involving a main black character, was something that was the critical motivation for Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog It’s rare that one might mention a Disney animated film for trying to be more sociologically deep than a live-action Hollywood production such as The Help.

Finally, there’s the Association of Black Women Historians:

In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.

I was mortified by the in-law who admired the film for “showing them talking the way they talk”, thusly engendering my response about “how do they talk?”:

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.”

As I noted when I began this reflection, it’s this recommendation that sealed my decision to shy away from The Help.  
In the end, I am left to again quote Roger Ebert:

But I suppose the Stockett novel has many loyal readers, and that this is the movie they imagined while reading it.
So fans of the book, and I know a couple, should be happy to be seeing on screen what they’d been keeping in their heads all this time.  For me, having had little desire to see the film in the first place (and I was in the dark that my wife had even read the novel), the objections to the film’s historical accuracy were alarm bells.  It’s folly to expect Hollywood to accurately reflect real life experiences when given controversial subject matter, especially with its history on how it’s portrayed the Civil Rights era.   Nevertheless, the objections to the film are worthy of being addressed and should be addressed, rather than dismissed out of hand. My own lesson learned through this thinking exercise would be to skip Stockett’s book, take advantage of recommended reading that might be of even greater value to understanding the eraUltimately, even for those who might choose to view the film, consider the legacy of those which went before.  As has been pointed out, Hollywood and

…[t]he film industry was as much a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes…[b]y denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed. 
I can at least understand why a story might need to be crafted in order to draw the largest possible audience to the movie theater.  And, in many respects, “popular” entertainment involves varying levels of pandering.  But in trying to decide how to spend my own entertainment dollar, I don’t have to be part of that audience if I choose not to be.  

A "U" Grade

While procrastinating in the middle of working on another blog post that I swore I would eventually post, I took advantage of a rare chance one morning this week to actually read the morning paper in the AM hours.  I have been paying only ancillary attention to the murder trial in Chatsworth regarding a middle schooler’s murder of his classmate in Oxnard in 2008.

Yes, a nightmare for these two families that I couldn’t even begin to fathom.  But of greater concern to me, what caused me to react beyond the simply recognition of pity for the circumstances, was this note from the article:

One teacher after another has testified in the murder trial about their deep worries that King’s feminine attire and taunting behavior could provoke problems — and that E.O. Green Junior High administrators ignored them. It wasn’t just that King, 15, had begun wearing makeup and women’s spiked-heeled boots, witnesses testified. It was that he seemed to relish making the boys squirm at his newly feminized appearance and was taunting them with comments like “I know you want me.””They wanted to beat Larry up for what he was doing to them and they came to me because I wanted to keep them out of trouble,” E.O. Green teacher Jill Ekman testified. “I told them that I would work on getting assistance from the office and we would work this out.”

While I have to admit to not following the trial in intimate detail, news about shooting has piqued my attention ever since I came across this LA Times story from two years ago, about Dawn Boldrin, the teacher in the front of the classroom.  The murder of the student, Larry King, was catalyst for ending her teaching career, and depending upon one’s POV, member’s of King’s family have pointed at Boldrin as hypocriticalover her own feelings in the death of the gay teenager, given how she had given King her own daughter’s homecoming dress as a way of honoring his identity, but with the instructions that it wasn’t an appropriate piece of clothing for regular school.

Boldrin said she considered the gift of her daughter’s homecoming dress to be a private moment between herself and King, who was struggling with family and sexual identity issues.
Boldrin said she wasn’t concerned about her gift further inflaming problems at the school related to King’s attire because she told King he couldn’t wear the floor-length gown to school. “I didn’t see anything inappropriate about him enjoying that dress outside of school,” Boldrin said on Friday, her second day of testimony for the defense. Queried by Fox, Boldrin admitted that her former colleagues at the school didn’t agree with her. She lost her tenured teaching position and now works as a barista at Starbucks. Fox also brought out that Boldrin suffered significant mental issues after the shooting, which occurred in her classroom. Fox asked her if she felt guilty about King’s death. “You bet,” she said after a pause. “And I have guilt over Brandon sitting there too.”

Much of what the Times’ story chose to focus upon was the struggle by teachers at the school to try to ameliorate the situation of one youngster clearly struggling with identity issues, but running up against the normal angst of other pubscent males’ exit out of the latency stage. Essentially, King, the eventual victim, was openly flaunting his cross-dressing, and, ultimately, teasing the boy who would become his murderer.  Of course, from what I’ve read, King either engaged in sexual harrassment of other boys at his school, or was not.  But the ultimate catalyst for the murder was King’s comments to McInerney about Valentine’s Day, and the harassment that McInerney was then subjected by his classmates afterwards.

Where I was struck about the details of this tragedy was, as I noted, the teachers and administration struggle with ways to deal with how Larry King’s behavior was escalating towards some confrontation that, in hindsight, was unavoidable, even if unpredictable, in its fatal resolution.

The trial testimony, and defense arguments that school officials mishandled the situation, highlight the struggle that many schools face: how to protect the civil rights of gay and transgender children while addressing the tensions that the issue can cause on campuses.

Assistant Principal Joy Epstein has come under criticism for allegedly being more intent on protecting King’s civil rights than in acknowledging that his dress and behavior were causing problems.

“It was reported, more than once, by more than one person,” said English teacher Dawn Boldrin. “It was documented. There is paperwork on this. She kept saying that she didn’t know and she did. She knew. She did. Everybody knew.”

Epstein, who testified for the prosecution, denied that anyone on the campus relayed concerns about King’s safety before the shooting.

One of the more troubling developments I see both in the classroom and on the playground is how “gay” has become an epithet.  But the practice itself is just mirroring, to some extent, popular culture.    Nevertheless, I try to approach the subject from what would best be described as a “teaching tolerance” perspective, as opposed to turning any question into a sexual harrassment “zero-tolerance” referral.  Part of me doesn’t want the complications of sending the kid to the office when they’re really ignorant of the implications of the phrase.  So I would rather try to diffuse it even so lamely by even pointing out that there are a number of other insults the kid likely has at his/her disposal.  But hey, Kobe Bryant does it!

Another approach I’ve used, especially when I was teaching 5th graders, was to point out the idea that the privacy of one’s home carried with it a fundamental right to such privacy.  This is an extension to the notion that one’s freedom ends where another person’s “person” begins.  (I have found this tome to be the best way I know to introduce the idea of the Bill of Rights to youngsters.) For simplicity’s sake, I try to describe it as akin to a situation where someone is watching their television by themselves, in their apartment, away from an outside window, wearing only boxer shorts while drinking a beer.  It’s not bothering anyone else, given the expectation to privacy in such a situation.  And seriously, I don’t figure that my example is the most eloquent, and likely has legal flaws, but in trying to get the idea across to 10-year-olds, I feel it has its uses, (even if the notion of watching TV, or doing so while wearing only underwear, or even drinking a beer, is anathema to certain of my colleagues.)  To this extent, the idea that someone is “gay” has no direct effect upon me, regardless of my attitude towards homosexual acts themselves, because, honestly, it’s not part of my identity.  But by taking such a stance, it is not within my right to take actions to deny others their own preferences.  Going further, gay marriage has no impact upon whether or not my own marriage stays strong.  In the end, I’d like to think that it’d be my own stupidity that would directly impact my marriage’s success or failure.

But all of my own views dissolve if I place myself into the heart of the tragedy at this middle school.  Instead of pushing the notion of a right to privacy, what appears to be unmistakable is the behavior of the victim prior to his murder.  He was making no effort to hide his orientation.   While the murder of Matthew Shepard has been likened to this killing, King was placing a greater burden on those teachers who wanted to see him stay out of trouble with his classmates:

In the King case, teachers testified about their concerns over King’s willingness to bring attention to himself, even if it was negative. Ekman, a 21-year teaching veteran, had King in seventh grade for reading and English and knew that the school’s special education plan for King urged him not to call special attention to himself.

That was why when she saw him wearing mascara and eyeliner to school in the eighth grade, she told him to wash it off, Ekman testified for the defense. King complied but returned the next day with even more makeup and a message: Epstein, the assistant principal, had told him that it was his right to wear the makeup, she told the court.

Epstein, in her testimony, said she had consulted with Hueneme Elementary School District officials about how to react to King’s dress and makeup. She was told that he had the right to wear girl’s items as long as they were within the district’s dress code, Epstein testified.

Shepard was ambushed and, as it was later discovered, did not make sexual advances that resulted in an attempt to use the gay panic defense.  Ironically, such a defense is being used in the current Chatsworth murder trial, and, given the age of the murderer, I can actually see this young man entering into a confusion of panic by a classmates and actions towards him.  I’ve often seen kids at my school, who are often teased, call down wrath upon themselves by baiting the very kids who are mostly likely to engage in behavior they’d don’t want to see.  But my understanding of Brandon McInerney’s actions does not mean I condone it.  Instead, reading the accounts of the school’s staff to come to some resolution of a volatile situation, puts me in a place where I realize how inadequate my own likely responses might have been had this been occurring in my own classroom or amongst the school as a whole.

I am not alone:

Dealing with a student who is exploring gender identity can be difficult, especially in the middle school years when students have differing levels of maturity and may be confused about their own identities, experts say. But it is a growing social issue on school campuses, said Stephanie Brill, founder and chief executive of Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area group that offers school workshops and teacher training on gender issues.

“Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is illegal, but teachers sometimes believe that they are not trained on how to deal with those issues when they crop up,” said Joel Baum, education director at Gender Spectrum.

“We hear a lot from teachers who feel handcuffed because they don’t know how to respect those rights and create a safe space for children who aren’t comfortable with it,” Baum said.

While teacher Dawn Boldrin made serious attempts at bonding with King as a means towards moderating his behavior and attitude, other teachers tried to get administration to step in:

Another assistant principal, Sue Parsons, sent an e-mail to the staff telling them to leave King alone unless his behavior was disrupting a class. Ekman said Epstein advised her to teach tolerance if students were upset by King’s behavior.

But that wasn’t working, Ekman said. A group of male students in her classroom told her they wanted to beat King up because he would seek them out and follow them into the bathroom. Ekman considered that sexual harassment and went back to Epstein with her concerns, she testified.

Epstein told her there was nothing the school could do, Ekman said. When the teacher attempted to press her case, Epstein shut the door in her face, Ekman told the court. The next day Ekman filed a grievance with the school’s principal, Joel Lovstedt, alleging that her concerns were being ignored.

On the following Monday, the grievance was denied by the school’s administration, Ekman said.

The fact that Epstein is openly lesbian, and some have somehow linked her orientation to inflaming the circumstances surrounding King, is something I consider besides the point of how the administration seriously attempted to “punt” the ball rather than trying to factor in the warnings of teachers who had inklings of the problems escalating beyond their control.  In many respects, as horrible as it sounds, I might even agree with the characterization that King, the murder victim, was a bully.  Having been teased myself as a youngster (for weight issues and glasses) when I was in junior high school, I once turned upon a tormentor by slamming him into a file cabinet, and, once in elementary school, I defended myself from taunts and physical threats by taking advantages of the myriad uses of metal lunchboxes.  My logic at the time involved the idea that a disproportionate response would end the threat immediately by, yes, singling myself out as slightly crazed, but by also letting others know not to mess with me.  Truth be told however, I did not think of killing bullies.

Tragically, McInerney’s response was entirely beyond the pale, but in removing sexual orientation from the equation, the school’s staff became unfortunately split and unable to act because it had no adequate controls in place with which to deal with the role reversal of victim/bully, wherein the bully was within their rights to free expression but crossed the line when such expression was clearly making another classmate uncomfortable, and determined to use a disproportionate method to end the taunting.  Given the normal “macho” attitudes of the tween male, McInerney likely saw only one way to end the taunting.  And, from what I’ve read, all of the attention by the administration was focused upon King, and no outreach effort was made to advocate for McInerney, who, even considering what ultimately transpired, had his own right to attend school without the disruption being put upon him by King.  King had every right at self-expression, but McInerney also, in my opinion, had a right to his own privacy.

Sadly, recriminations are wholly after the fact. Ultimately, the article struck a nerve within me to monitor my own actions/reactions and comments in the future.  That I can see myself in that courtroom reflecting upon my own potential failings as an educator truly gives me pause.