It’s been, what? Five years or so, but I finally saw The Help. Don’t know why I never saw it. I love Octavia Spencer. I LOVE Viola Davis. I just never got to it until now… and maybe that’s for the best, because now I have something to say. When one has something unpopular to say, they tend to keep it to themselves, because when others hear things they don’t want to hear, particularly if it makes them think about themselves possibly having done something “wrong,” they alienate you, in an effort to avoid a future where something like this could happen again. But…. given that the film is centered around telling true stories that upset others, I’m feeling particularly inspired.
When I watched The Help, I saw some of my White peers, present day peers, in the movie… and I didn’t even know they were actors. You see, the film summoned images in my mind, images from the past. For instance:
I once worked with a director in Philadelpia on a play he wrote (that’s another story). The play took place during a time, that while slavery was “over,” the use of “nigger” still prevailed. My character was something of an intelligent Black man, who worked for a white man. Not an ordinary white man, one involved with politics. We’d known each other most of our lives. Now, during rehearsal for this play, the director tells my white cast-mates, who are having trouble with the dialogue, if ever you can’t remember your lines say “nigger'”… Was this necessary? No. Did this add to the story in any way? No. Did this make everyone feel uncomfortable? Yes. Yet, he had no problem saying it over and over and over, despite how many times my white cast-mates protested. Now, if I know you, you’re probably a Millennial, the arguing type. So, I’m sure you are formulating, in your mind, a reason this is okay – I’ll get to that in a moment. But, besides what made this obviously, not okay in the 21st Century, was his lack of sensitivity. I’m in a room filled with white actors and you are yelling “nigger” for literally no reason, over and over AT ME and suggesting that everyone do the same.
This made me wildly uncomfortable. I remember talking to some of his peers about what happened – his white peers – and I remember them brushing it off, “that’s who he is… he’s a little unorthodox… he loves pushing buttons… he’s not racist” anything that says… “just deal with it.” Did I say something? Well, no… and here’s why. When I worked with this man, I came to rehearsal prepared, because that’s who I am. Even when the script changed the day before, I knew my lines. Now, when I’m in rehearsal with other actors and they mess up their lines, when they skipped ahead 3 pages, who got notes? Me. I remember one of my cast-mates messing up royally during one rehearsal… I mean, they just were not prepared and yet this director continued to “correct” me and after I attempted to politely point out that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and was reprimanded for doing so, I stopped talking, I’m not interested in arguing. I let him tell me over and over how I was messing up, how I was throwing things off for my fellow actor. Every time there was something “wrong” with a scene, he asked my fellow actor what he needed, and based on that, I had to change what I was doing…. EVEN IF IT CONTRADICTED EVERYTHING ABOUT THE PLAY. Whatever made this man feel better, I had to do. And when I tried to express why a change didn’t make sense, or would make things very difficult for me…. I was told, “don’t think of it that way.” One night, after rehearsal, I remember the director calling me and yelling at me. Telling me how furious I was during rehearsal… I was so caught off guard, I honestly thought it was a joke. He told me how I attacked my fellow actor, made him feel uncomfortable, everything under the sun and at this point, what I had to say didn’t matter, he was convinced. Why? I have no idea, but what he didn’t know was that me and the rest of the cast were already on the same page.
Now, the actors constantly apologized to me, after rehearsals because they too saw what was happening… we talked about it every time he left the room, but no one ever did anything. It’s sort of like when you watch The Help. When the mean white lady tells the other white woman that Viola Davis’ character stole from her… even though they both knew it wasn’t true… she knew it was wrong, but she fired her anyway… and isn’t it just worse when they say, “sorry”. When I watched that movie, I saw my director, who was constantly silencing me. I saw my peers, who did nothing. They said nothing. This man even slapped me in the face during a rehearsal, to excite me…. I was in a scene and he was walking around… like directors do, so I thought nothing of it and he just slapped the shit out of me. In that moment, I wanted to drop out of the play, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t be the guy who dropped out. Even if I had a good reason. Because that’s not how history would tell it. And these people, these white “peers” treated me like The Help. I Am Not The Help.
I was cast in a play. An independent play. Now, I agreed to do the play, knowing that in most of these cases, there is a serious lack of organization and a heap load of unprofessionalism. But, I accepted. I did that. The director was a White man in his early 30’s. He had also written the play. There was a lot of wasted time during this process. A lot. Every actor being called to every rehearsal and maybe not doing anything half the time. If you’re an actor… you already know. This might be the most frustrating thing on the planet. But, I don’t protest. I don’t complain. I ask questions and wait for a response. Most of my peers were not as seasoned, so were a little more accepting of being called unnecessarily to a rehearsal, having a dance rehearsal where no one thought to prepare SOUND, having a read through, with NO CHAIRS. Now, listen if it were a matter of poverty, of misfortune… I get it. Do what you can, but THIS? This was a lack of preparation, a lack of care, and I’m sorry to say a lack of experience, backed by a lot of ego. And I wasn’t thrilled. But, I didn’t complain. I showed up prepared and did my job. Was I as apt to joke with him and stay behind after rehearsal and talk? No. There were major holes in the combination of the script and his choices in how to carry them out. I don’t want to go into detail, but it was just irresponsible (yes, it had to do with race). And if you are a person of color, you know how exhausting it is, to constantly have to “teach” white people things, as though it’s your only reason for existing, as though, it’s your job… as though, you’re The Help.
So, one day, the cast, who I love, is at the bar. We’ve all been drinking and this man approaches me to talk to me. He tells me how talented I am, how professional I am, how great I am. Thank you. Then he says, “I don’t think you like me.” And I thought I was in Fences… What law there is says I have to like you? Now, I didn’t say this. I let the man speak. “You show up and you do your job and you do it well. You are great, but I don’t know if you like the process or my writing or me.” It was a terrible position to put someone in, especially in a public place and what I saw was a nice, under prepared white man, who wasn’t happy with the fact that I knew it, and what’s worse, didn’t comment on it. I felt his insecurity, knowing that i was aware of how unprofessional it was at times, how incredibly under prepared he was at times, and how entitled he was. And this man was standing in front of me, asking me to make him feel better. He was saying, “tell me I’m great, even though we both know what’s been happening.” And it was like, I was his maid and he was this woman who couldn’t cook well and we both knew it, but he wanted me to tell him, “your cooking is great!” No. I don’t have to do that. If I want people to think I’m great, I have to be great. And even then, no one needs to kiss my ass. I don’t care how many of your peers have had a solo cup of the Kool-Aid… I think that is why I stuck out in his mind, because I was the only one around him not jumping for joy, but the thing is, we both knew what was going on… And I don’t have to play this game with you. I AM NOT THE HELP.
I have peers saying crazy things. I had friend describe the most first world protest I have ever heard of. Now, this isn’t a criticism, this is an observation. I told this person, “wow If that was a Black Lives Matter protest, I can’t imagine police letting it go on like that in an airport, letting hundreds of pizzas be delivered to feed the protests, interrupting the flow of things, playing live music (WTF) and no one get arrested. No cops escalating the situation. Nothing.” And this person says: “Oh, well, we were peaceful.” I’m sorry, master, what was I thinking. I forgot that every time there has been an altercation with police at a Black Lives Matter protest, it’s because…. they weren’t being peaceful. Right! That’s what the difference is. How could I forget. Thank you. Also, this whole thing about police using unnecessary violence, with Black people, it’s a sham. You’re right. Shut the fuck up. I AM NOT THE HELP.
I think of all the times I’ve been in a group of White peers who are all looking at each other, talking to each other, and most of them aren’t looking at me, even when I am speaking. There so kind to each other, they’re enjoying each other’s company. And I am left feeling removed. BUT. When they need something. Information. Knowledge. A favor. I suddenly exist. I AM NOT THE HELP.
I think of my white gay peers, who at functions won’t even socialize with me. But the second they want to know the name of the cute White guy in the corner, I exist. I AM NOT THE HELP.
With all the things happening in the country right now, that touches the lives of almost all of us. I’m feeling… something again. It feels like a war during segregation. “We need to stick together. We’re all in this together.” And now you want the help of the people you’ve been minimizing for years. It feels like WWII or something. You want these people of color to enlist in your racist military, because now you’re in danger too. You want to get things back to how they were a year ago, because it benefits you. Now, do I think this way about everyone? No. This is an analogy. Imagine I’m white and this is a book. This is writing. But, what I am saying is, I AM NOT THE HELP!