Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I know I'm late to the game. I always am. But I just finished watching Skin with Sophie Okonedo (a goddess) and Sam Neill (so ubiquitous he's at least a demigod). It's one of those based-on-a-true-story stories about a white couple who give birth to a "dark-skinned" daughter during apartheid-era South Africa.

It's an intriguing flick. It's one of the few movies to ever explore race as a social construct (Black Like Me, Watermelon Man, and, ugh, Soul Man) come to mind. You watch a father's desperate struggle to have his daughter officially recognized by the state as being "white" to glean the advantages that that would garner her while society at large views her as "coloured." Since one's race is basically what one is perceived to be, you can only imagine the consequences. And, of course, it ain't pretty.

I am one who believes that race is, indeed, a social construct. Therefore, I found the movie very interesting and enjoyed it (as much as one can "enjoy" an apartheid flick) for exploring that. Also, as an American, I found it interesting because South Africa's construct of race differs a bit from ours. Having been ruled by the One Drop Rule for the lion's share of this country's existence, we have only relatively recently started to recognize that there's such a thing as a "mixed-race" person. Black is black is black is black. Though the character of this film was categorized as coloured it seemed like she was treated more as a black. Skin has piqued my interest in what the societal and legal differences were/are between black and coloured in South Africa.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So Bill, have you weighed in on the controversy surrounding The Help? If so, I missed it.
    I read the book but haven't seen the flick and might not because I'm often disappointed by Hollywood's handling of novels. This book is so rich on so many levels, I doubt that a screenplay could do it justice, and am even more suspect of casting and other directors.
    But, I've been following several blogs written by black writers/academics who blow both the book and movie out of the water for 1/having white female characters, including one who ,ight be based on the author herself, 2/having been written by a white female instead of a black one, and 3/not portraying black women realistically. In other words, I guess they 1/don't like the book the author or the film, 2/think the author should have written a different book, not necessarily a better version of this one, and 3/prefer non-fiction to fiction. I dunno. If I'm missing something, please help me out.
    So, I tried to discussions on the book, but was met with such anger and weirdness, I bailed. Can't for the life of me figure out what some of the debaters (and I use the term loosely) mean when they say things like, "Misrepresentation in fiction is still misrepresentation," "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," "all works are iconic," and "it’s much easier to make fictional people say things that fit a preconceived POV." Can you help me out or straighten me out? Am I just too old or too uninformed to understand?
    As a writer and a black man, what do you say about The Help? As a writer and a white woman, I say people can write anything they want. Nobody has to buy or finish a book if they don't like it (as long as they're not required to by a teacher) and they certainly don't have to sit through a movie if it's going to make them angry or uncomfortable. Did readers criticize Ian Fleming as angrily for asking them to accept James Bond as a believable spy, when most spies are probably 60, fat and balding? Is that misrepresentation in fiction?
    Can someone write a cowboy novel if he or she was never a cowboy? If not, how does anybody write and why would anybody read science fiction, horror or fantasy novels? What about romances? Must you always write what you know and only what you know? If so, I'm doomed as both a writer and a reader.

  3. Absolutely true that race is a social construct. If we were a lower species being studied by a zoologist, the differences between all the human beings on the Earth would not lead them to label one a different race from another. We are all of the same race biologically.

    Oh, and Paula brings up interesting notions. Can you really write what you do without being a 23rd Century star trooper or a middle class single educated young black man despondent over booty?
    Oh wait, never mind the last one.

  4. @ Paula -- I have neither read nor seen The Help. I've been curious since there's such a stark racial divide regarding both. From what I've been able to gather, the thing that annoys black folks about the work is that it's another White Messiah flick. I refer you back to an old Tome post:

    From what I've gathered from very little, it's about a young white woman who saves a bunch of black servants who had no idea before she came along that they could actually save themselves. It's a representation that we of-colors have seen way too often, and yeah, people get pissed about that.

    Also, it comes down to the weight of representation. Black folks don't see but so many mainstream movies about themselves and when they do it's often these white Messiah flicks. If there were more of a variety of stories, historically based or not, the vehemence would be less, but it would still be there.

    That's about the best I can come up with without having seen nor read. I hope that helps.

    @sagacioushillbilly -- Smart ass. :)

  5. >>From what I've gathered from very little, it's about a young white woman who saves a bunch of black servants who had no idea before she came along that they could actually save themselves. It's a representation that we of-colors have seen way too often, and yeah, people get pissed about that.<<

    Yeah, I get all that. I found the book much more complex than your synopsis but, as you say, you haven't read it. You should. I'd recommend the book over the movie, just because I'd like to think serious writers can do anything better than Hollywood's hired hands.

    As you, of course, know, sometimes fiction has a more pronounced effect on readers/viewers than reality, probably because a good read offers a composite of many lives and many circumstances, crafted with language and plot that's understood within the context of the reader’s life and times, and read in a safe place, far from the dangers and conflicts of the reality it depicts.

    For some stories, there's such a thing as being too close. Fifty years gives us a buffer, just enough to let us peek into a scene from the 1960s and really see how restrictive it was for everyone involved. Such is the case in The Help.

    Is this just another Messiah story? Maybe on a very superficial level, but, hopefully, most readers would look beyond the dialect and the surface plot, to see what's really going on.

    I see The Help as a necessary book, one that starts slowly but sucks you into so much fear and oppression that inanities like a Junior League gala are necessary as a foil to the blood being spilled just outside the catering hall door. Drawing from her own childhood (or not), Stockett has created a complex tale about a whole bunch of people — mostly women — trying to enforce or overcome restraints put on them by a society that no longer exists, caught in a web of hate, blame, anger and fear. White characters hang on to anything or anyone they can control with everything they've got, and black people live such restricted lives, they might as well be in chains. Still, the author shows us the humanity of each main character, in all its nakedness.

    From what I've seen of the trailers, the director may have fluffed up the story a bit for the theater audience, but the book does contain a few humorous scenes. Even though everyone suffers a loss, the book ends in early 1964 with a hint of change in the air, not only for the main characters but for the country as a whole. Of course, we know now that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was right around the corner.

    Is this a great book? If you consider nothing but the impact it has on the very people who need to have their eyes opened to Jim Crow Mississippi, you might say it is. Is it great literature? Probably not. There are too many rough edges, including dialect a lot of readers find jarring, unrealistic and insulting. Should it never have included both white and black characters? I don't think so. We write what we know. Hopefully, we learn something about the world, when we read a book that grabs us.

    But, if we follow a standard that demands authors must have experienced everything they write about, almost no books will ever be published. We'll miss out on so much.

  6. Obviously, I don't feel that writers, etc., should limit their work to their own experience. My first novel was military science fiction, and I've been in no man's army. My second novel was about the single life when I was 10 years removed from the scene.

    One of the problems with that, though, is that a lot of creatives aren't very good of sublimating their own egos enough to accurately portray "The Other." Whether it's Bebe Moore Campbell and white people or Alice Walker and men. John Sayles is one of the few writers/directors I've ever come across who's portrayed others well.

    Also, you just have a problem of under-representation. The publishing industry has decided that it will only produce "ghetto lit"--almost to the entire exclusion of anything else from African-Americans. TV refuses to tell minority-driven stories. Black folks haven't even had a cheesy sitcom to rant about on network TV for almost a decade. And Hollywood seems to have this queer penchant to produce movies about black folks about white people.

    Yes, we all understand that it might've been hard for white people during the Civil Rights movement, but what about the black people? Why can't they tell their own stories? Why does it always have to be about how white people were affected by white oppression? As a story teller, it's not even the more compelling narrative by half.

    I think if you look at it through that lens, the criticism of The Help (it's even named after them and still they're not the primary characters--I'm asking, since I haven't read) will make more sense.

  7. I certainly agree with what you have to say about under-representation. But, New York and Hollywood produce such crap, it's hard to wish they'd work up more shows/films about any individual, group or concept that deserves one. TV can't seem to get out of junior high jokes. And, there's no excuse for Hollywood.

    You need to read the book. Actually, there are three main characters, the three narrators. Two are black maids and one is a white woman who was raised by a black maid. The narrators tell their own stories, but they're all intertwined. Of course, the whole thing is fiction, so the accuracy of the depiction of lives of black maids depends on the skill of the writer.

    As for white people affected by white oppression, that may have been something I put on the book. What I saw below the surface in this novel -- and have observed in real life -- is that everyone loses when any one group is oppressed, whether they realize it or not. And, trust me: hour-by-hour, day-by-day oppression is clear in this story. That's one of its strengths.

    Thanks for your explanations, though. I look forward to what you have to say after you read The Help. Hasn't your group recorded it for the blind?

  8. No. It didn't go through us. I'm sure it was recorded, though. It had to have been. There are 9 companies around the country that do what we do (and two are brand-spanking-new).

  9. I agree totally. There has always been this underlying theme in white literature of the white person stepping in and saving the poor defenseless people who are too ignorant to save themselves. . . Tarzan to Dances w/ Wolves to Avatar. White literature and cinema are jam packed full of it.
    I wonder, can such works actually be good literature or cinema?