Saturday, September 3, 2011

the white help

In 1955 in an incident that is now famous, 42 year old Rosa Parks, a black American, refused to give her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man. She was arrested, and a black boycott of buses was organised for the day of her trial. The boycott snowballed and lasted more than a year.
Helping to organise that boycott was a young Martin Luther King Jr.

People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. 

This is one heck of a good story. Good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and they satisfy us most when they are character driven.

In the beginning of a story, we meet a person and use the clues we are given to assess their character.
We know something about Rosa Parks' character because she was a member of the NAACP, she worked for a living, and she travelled by bus so she was not overly rich.

In the middle of the story, this woman who obviously thought life should be better for Black Americans was confronted with a situation that required her to make a choice. It wasn't a particularly "big" choice - it was a choice she had had to make before. On this day when she was told to give up her seat, she chose option B. Although her choice to stay seated was not her usual choice, it was not out of character for someone who believed she had rights.

At the end of the story, she was arrested. She was also changed slightly, and had become somehow stronger, as a result of that decision.

All of the interesting stories that make up our lives have a beginning and middle and end, and they draw us ever closer to finding our inner strength, and closer to being who we really are.

A movie script is a chain of small stories, on average about 3 minutes long, and each with a beginning, middle and end. The end of one small story creates a new story; a new situation for people to respond to, and how they respond will depend on their character, in line with how their character is itself evolving with each new situation and response.

After Rosa was arrested, the next micro story began when other people responded with the support we'd expect from people already united by their belief in the right to be treated with dignity. By the end of this second part of the bigger story, they had organised a one day bus boycott.

Rosa Parks did not necessarily get up one morning and decide "Today, just to be different, I think I'll start a revolution." Change does not happen like that. People might agree amongst themselves that they want change, or they might plan and plot for change, but change cannot be guaranteed by a plan, it emerges from a split second decision made at a time when all the planets of chance just happen to be aligned.
This had not been the first time Rosa had stood up to that particular bus driver, and she was by no means the first to say "Heck no, I'm not moving from this bus seat". 

Change happened because Rosa acted, by random chance, at the right time: when she was in the right mood, when it was her not so favourite bus driver on duty,  and on a day when there was a larger than usual number of white passengers. She acted at a time when the other black bus passengers of Montgomery were also tired, and were ready to organise a boycott no matter what it cost them.
Just as Rosa Parks did not "start" a revolution by any means other than being true to her own every day character, the White Lady in each of three recent race related movies [discussed in my previous post] did not heroically or condescendingly decide to bestow gifts of dignity or inspiration or freedom on some mass of passive black victims. These movies do NOT proceed from the assumption that only white people can grant rights because rights, by definition, are not something anyone can own, steal or give. Rights are things which can, however, be ignored.
The "White Ladies" in these stories were simply just being themselves in the right place at the right time to help create a situation where things might change.
If we look at the conditions of Black Maids in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s, nothing was going to change without someone creating a new situation for them to respond to, in character. They were good women with good values, they wanted things for their families, and they knew they did not dare buck the system - the consequences would be unemployment, or violence, or both. It was not in their character to put their families at risk.
This is not a movie about women who needed [white] help to know they were being exploited, in part it's about how they were controlled to stop them from fighting back.

Like the trailer for the movie The Help says, these Black women were the women who raised white children, and their stories deserve to be heard. 
It's quite possible that if someone published a book of diary entries written secretly by various maids, or if someone made a documentary about those times, the stories would be heard - but they would only be heard by a small number of people. More movies are made than documentaries, because people prefer structured stories.

By making these stories into a larger story, the author of The Help put them into a format which meant they would be heard by a much larger number of people. The format was an entertaining work of fiction. 
Samuel Goldwyn could not have been more wrong when he said the best way to send a message was with Western Union.

Like the trailer for the movie The Help shows, the "White Lady" who recorded the maids' stories did not set out to rescue black people, or to start a revolution, any more than Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat. The White Lady simply wanted to be a writer, so she got a newspaper job writing a column of housekeeping advice. The rest of the story is a natural progression of situations and character driven responses.
The White Lady is not "the hero" of the story, she is just a literary device. Without her in the story to create a situation in need of a response, there would be no story, and we would never have a chance to look through the eyes of these black women. In fact, the ending of this movie makes it perfectly clear that the White Lady is not intended to be a hero.

People who are sick of movies with White Lady heroes are, at best, misreading the events in the stories. At worst, they are in danger of closing doors on the truth, and stopping the rest of us from getting to know the stories we really should hear.
PS what I am describing here is, quite obviously, a formula. It's essentially the work of Aristotle. The American film-making and publishing worlds have perfected the formula. It works for me, and I love it. 

If I don't read much Australian fiction it's primarily because Australian fiction doesn't always follow the formula. Unless an Australian book follows the formula I lose interest, fall asleep, or struggle to bond emotionally with the characters. If I can't get to know the people I'm reading about, whether they are real people or imagined, a story seems to have no point for me. If I can't get to know at least some of the main characters, and see them growing, then I can't sympathise with them.  I like to see characters grow, because I like to be inspired.
Whether we focus solely on the facts, or try to build a story around the facts, Ned Kelly is an uninspiring loser; an anti-hero.
His character might have reflected some decent values:

  • stop persecuting the Irish;
  • don't treat my sister/mother like that;
  • the system does not deserve my respect or compliance.

But Ned did not stand for dignity or justice, he stood for revenge. He couldn't see the bigger picture, or beyond his own personal grievances.
Before he drafted his rambling Jerilderie letter, he became the flawed person he had originally only been accused of being.
He didn't learn or grow from the situations originally created by others but increasingly of his own making.
He didn't grow, or become a leader, or inspire a revolution tackling a great wrong or freeing anyone else.
Instead, he effectively became a terrorist.

He certainly did not get a fair trial, but it is equally certain that he got what he was really asking for. He was not much of a martyr, because he did not die for a cause that had a chance to change lives.


  1. Whatever her motivation, I am certain Rosa could not have possibly imagined that so many people around the world nearly sixty years later would know who she is.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    I'm sure she shook her head in wonder quite a few times before she passed away.