The Last Word | August 10, 2011
>>> i would need your help. i want to interview you about what it's like to work as a maid. i'd like to do a book of interviews about working for white families to let you show what it's like to work for -- elizabeth? i was thinking we wouldn't have to tell her. the other maids would have to keep it a secret too.
>> other maids?
>> well, i was hoping to get four or five. to show what it's really like in jackson.
>> that's a scene from the new movie "the help," which is from the book of the same title by katherine stockett, it's a depiction of the life of african-american maids in the south of 1963 .
>> sit down mother before she breaks a hip.
>> hold on, miss hilly looks like the winning horse at the kentucky derby . all those flowers and bows. forgive me, lord, but i'm going to have to kill that woman, abilene. but i carry a paper to my own house. that girl don't know.
>> oprah winfrey tweeted today "hey, tweets, if you liked the book "the help," you'll delight in the movie, opens today, can't wait to hear what you think." because the book generated controversy, we asked tulane university professor melissa harris - perry to join the opening day crowds at the theater and answer oprah's question, what do you think. if you followed melissa 's tweets today, this is what you saw as she tweeted from the theater. "i'm one hour into "the help" movie, i'm not sure i can make it through to the end. i read the book, i knew, but the images." then, hard to tell whether it's the representation of black women or white women that's most horrible. and then "thank god magical black women were available to teach white women raise their families and to write books." and then "and thank god plucky white girls could give black women the courage to resist exploitation." then "and man was it full of giggling good times in the kitchen." then "oh, i loves me some fried chicken . this line was just uttered in "the help," seriously." "i just timed it, miss skeeter's date got the same amount of screen time as medgar evan's assassination." "the first real moment, violent arrest of black woman ." and finally, "the help movie reduces exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk." melissa also sent us an e-mail saying i think msnbc is going to have to give me worker's comp for putting me through this. joining me now is melissa harris - perry , msnbc contributor and author of a new book released this week, "sister citizen shames and stereotypes," she's also "the last word's" film critic. at the bottom of one of your e-mails today before you saw the movie, you said -- you said you were incoherently angry. now, i have actually been incoherently angry on television more than once. you never have. i would give anything to see you incoherently angry on television tonight. it will take off. it will go viral.
>> undoubtedly, but i went home, took some deep breaths after this, in part because i think it's really easy to frame an african- american woman feminist talking about a feel-good, happy race movie with a critical eye as kind of a killjoy. it's the easiest thing in the world to do, and i want to be careful, if you like the part of the movie that is about the young woman , skooeter, my anxiety is a notion this is about the lives of black women , no, it's not. it's about skeeter, the white woman who is the main character . the fact is the african- american woman domestic workers become props in the movie for her, just as they are props in the movie as real life , but the notion this is somehow tapping into the experience of actual black women domestic workers, you know, if the debt ceiling is kind of your sweet spot , the thing that you knew, this one, how black women 's labor exploitation continues to impact our policy and our politics and cultural lives today, that's mine, so it's just -- i know there are a lot of bad movies and troubling books, but this one got to me.
>> melissa , there's always this issue in emphasis of movies like this where evan's assassination gets this much space compared to these other things, and how do you weigh the artistic judgment, which is not scientific, does not use historical calculation, but sensibility. how do you weigh that when you're watching a movie like this?
>> the problem is that it is so a-historical as to be inaccurate. i get the problem people want to feel good so we reduce racism that if you bake a problematic pie, somehow you can get the one white woman back, but look, the issues that faced african-american women were not real housewives of jackson, mississippi, mean girls behavior, it was rape, it was lynching. this completes the work that happened and started in 1923 when the americans, the daughters of the american confederacy, along with senator john williams from mississippi found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue in the shadow of the lincoln memorial . this was the same senate that refused to pass the dire answered lynching bill, in other words, a senate that allowed black men to be lynched without federal oversight, to allow them to be lynched with no consequence in the south, at the same time had the time to pass a bill that said we can erect a statute. this is not granite or on federal land , but it's the same notion it's more important than realities of the lives, pain, anguish, lynching they experienced. for that reason it's a-historical and deeply troubling.
>> melissa , every view i read today made some of the points you made, but also every one of them said viola davis was just incredible.
>> she is, and what kills me is that in 2011 , viola davis is reduced again to playing a maid. i want to see that exquisite acting to the kind of roles she deserves.
>> melissa harris - perry , thank you very much for joining us tonight.