Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Viola Davis, "Ain't You Tired?"


As much as possible, I attempt not to judge the personalities, actions and artwork of others in a way that I would not want to be judged. Meaning I know I have my flaws and I know what comments serve my holistic improvement and which serve only to belittle and demean me and strengthen the self-hatred that is directed at me as a 30 something Black man. But I am also aware of the need to critique the words and images that are presented to me as a Black man. Yes I am a feminist, and I say that without shame, partially because I love my mama and all women, and partially because I read a lot of bell hooks. And one thing I've learned from bell hooks is to always judge words and image on its intents to increase both the love of self and the love of others, and to define love by wanting the best for another human being. That being said, I must admit there is some love for the subjects of this film and those who watch this film, but there's also something sadly missing. In the end, I believe that the multiple horrors that have been articulated by so many critics are indeed true of this film, I also believe that there is far more beauty in this film than many people are willing to admit.

I won't attempt to rehash the glaring absences of historical critique that so many have already written about this film. I feel that the fact that this is the perspective of a White author, White producers and White director is evident, despite the compassion exhibited in the film's portrayal. I also will not expound upon the fact that the plight of domestic workers both then and now is far more oppressive than that could possibly portray if it had any hope of getting made or making an Oscar bid. What this is is just a small glimpse into my mind while I was watching the film.

You see, I could not watch that film without seeing my mother or my grandmother. Of course I know that my grandmother was the first woman in her family not to have to face the expectation that when she was "grown" she would be a domestic servant like her own mother and grandmothers. But there was something about the Viola Davis' face that made me feel like I was looking at my own mother's face had I been born 40 years ago. It cannot be denied that watching this film I had the sensation that someone was paying my own great grandmothers the honor of portraying their lives on a big screen and in a similar way there is a feeling that to speak badly about this film is to speak badly about my great grandmother. So while the unnaddressed privilege and fantasy of the "Great White Hype" is think in this film, it's hard not to watch this move and not think of the bravery of my matriarchs. I also must mention that almost the entire cast of the film is female and that most of the writing and all of the acting is superb. To not speak about the quality of the film is as biased as to focus solely on it.


I love pointing out the attempt of White people to revise history to make themselves look like saviors just like the next person, but when I watch this movie I don't see very much of this. I don't think White people come out looking very good at all. Of course they don't look that bad either (apparently every White woman in 1960's Mississippi was a beauty queen). Even our heroine isn't all that great. I mean come on, writing someone else's story does NOT make you a hero. I'm appreciative of the writing of Alex Haley but Malcolm X is the hero of his autobiography. And there are enough stupid and racist White people in this movie to have me wondering how my great grandmothers and their families put up with it. But if there's one thing that I don't want to see any more movies about, it's stupid and racist White people and their fake heroic counterparts. You hear that Hollywood? If you want to make a film about White heroes how about make some about real heroes, like the ones who helped organize the Underground railroad? Or the ones who helped end the Vietnam War? It reminds me of a conversation I had with my first graders when I was trying to teach them about slavery. One little White girl asked me, "Were all White people bad?" Well no sweetheart, but you wouldn't know that from our movies and history books. You'd either think they were slave owners or they were figments of White guilt imagination. But I've often said that I in no way envy White people their guilt. It's sad see, I don't what it would feel like to try and redeem my entire ancestry for the sins of selling children from their mothers or firing the women that raised their children because their own daughters entered through the front door (spoiler alert). I can't front, if my mama had done that I might have made up some story of ending slavery my own self.

But in the end, the only reason to make a film like this is not to write some revisionist's fantasy about how good White people are, as most of my White allies know, we don't need another hero, there are enough White saviors of the past. The purpose should be to give praise for those unseen and unacknowledged Black matriarchs. Perhaps that's what this film set out to do, but it falls short. Still the focus is too much on Whiteness, still the story is too saccharine, the suffering is too trite, and perhaps most offensively, still Black children are nothing more than the voiceless pickininees in the corner. Because in this film, the Black woman is still slave, her only purpose is to serve, in this case a Pulitzer and an Oscar, with no identity unless she is by the side of her White mistress.

I don't say these things because I hate this movie, I don't, I actually like it, would watch it again, and think it deserves multiple awards, if for no other reason than it gives voice to some of the invisible. I also don't write these things because I hate White women. I don't write out of hate at all, but rather because I love my mother and all Black women. Anyone who knows me knows these things are true. And I'm so tired of seeing my matriarchs maligned, denigrated, turned into two-dimensional characters and lied about. I write out of the love for the art of my mothers, AND I write out of the pain of having to see my mothers treated this way for over 300 years, and yes Viola, I'm tired of it. When will we cease with this abysmal behavior?

3 comments:

Monica Jane Nelson said...

Well said! I like the way you have looked at this issue from multiple directions. I agree, this film isn't just bad or good. It offered some great things, and it also lacked some things. Despite the improvements it could definitely make, it has told an important story that hasn't been told in the mainstream.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Sandhya said...

Thanks for a really reflective piece, Tai Amri! It almost makes me want to watch the movie, except the book was so painful for me. You mentioned that you didn't think the movie heroized even the white female lead, because all she did was write down others' stories. I remember going to see the film "Born Into Brothels" when I was in Chicago, a documentary by a white woman who went into the red light district of Kolkata and taught the children to become photographers. THe kids went through so much and their survival and thriving really moved me, although the woman's actions and assumption that her worldview was absolutely correct frustrated me a lot. As I walked out of the film, another woman said, "What heroic actions!" And I said, "I worked in that area this summer, and it's amazing how typical those children are." She looked at me blankly and said, "I meant the woman," like I was an idiot. Because even when I didn't see the woman as the hero, most of the people who went to that film had been trained to see her that way. Intent and effect are complex things.

Emily Joye said...

This is an incredible reflection that leaves me with much to think about. Thank you for your continued offerings of wit, grit and the real. I love you, Tai Amri.