Imagine a group of stoned acid-heads arriving on your front doorstep who invite themselves in, commandeer your stereo and start throwing sleeping bags on the floor of your living room. The year was 1964, the acid-heads were Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his busload of Merry Pranksters and the living room and stereo belonged to young writer Larry McMurtry. The Pranksters stopped at his house in Texas whereupon one of the female freedom fighters who was aboard Kesey's Day-Glo bus Further wandered off into the night only to be arrested by the local constabulary. She was hauled off to a nearby psychiatric ward babbling incoherently to anyone who would listen. From what can be gleaned from the new documentary about this famous cross country escapade, Magic Trip - Ken Kesey's Search for a Cool Place - the freedom he and his bus-mates were fighting for was an inward freedom, a journey towards enlightenment that came from dropping LSD and discovering that the river you are wading in is talking to you and that you and the water are one with the universe.
The movie The Help, also released last week, examines the fight for freedom of an entirely different kind - the struggle for basic human dignity - for recognition of one's humanity - and for the acknowledgment that you have a voice that demands to be heard.
There is a jaunty fun that comes through in The Magic Trip - at least if you are not one of the unfortunate people who had to put up with the incessant talking of Neal Cassady (a brilliant raconteur apparently, but did you have to be high on amphetamines too to get into his "groove?") who drove the bus, sometimes into the mud. The pleasures of the film are the old footage and witnessing some of the sheer mad cocky conceit of it all.
To some people with a particular stance towards the "60s," the unfocused narrative - the bus as a psychic liberated zone - and the band of brothers and sisters ethos will be a nostalgic journey back to a time when the dominant culture was being challenged through high-risk experimentation. The self, as historian Alice Echols points out, was for Kesey and his ilk, the site of the experiment. For a while anyways, the high priests of the drug culture regarded LSD as "revolutionary."
In her survey of the cultural and political tributaries that flowed out of the 60s, Echols concluded - correctly I think - that perhaps the most "far-reaching" social movement that emerged from that period was women's liberation. For her, the Pranksters were engaging in childish antics (during their stop in Arizona they painted "Vote Goldwater for Fun" on the side of the bus) whereas the serious young people and the mature adults who often advised them were the ones who built social movements that had a lasting impact on public policy. The civil rights movement is a clear example.
The Help, while not a movie about building a social movement, does engage the daily indignities suffered by African American maids in Jackson Mississippi during the same time that the Pranksters were driving through the vicinity (they took a southern route on their way to the New York World's Fair). Because it is not about "the movement," about the ways in which African Americans initiated and sustained their own struggles in the south at this time, the movie has been subjected to withering criticism from a number of quarters. The Association of Black Women Historians slammed the film as full of "widespread stereotyping" and a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy," a portrayal of black women as "loyal, and contented caretakers of whites..." While a viewer of The Help might disagree with this characterization - I didn't find the depiction of the maids as "contented," for instance - the relationship between Hollywood and historians has not been a congenial one particularly when the subject matter has been the African American experience.
A few examples of past movies reveal a disturbing pattern. Jacqueline Jones, author of the book Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, questioned a central plot point in the 1990 film A Long Walk Home. The film stared Whoopi Goldberg as a domestic working for a white family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The film portrayed the heroic solidarity expressed by a white woman - played by Cissy Spacek who is also in The Help - with the black community in defiance of her family and the local power structure. "No white woman has yet emerged out of the shadows of history as a principled driver during the year-long ordeal," Jones wrote.
Historian William Chafe called the movie Mississippi Burning - about two FBI agents who come to Mississippi to investigate and "solve" the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964 as "an atrocious distortion of history."
Academics have pointed out that black 54th Regiment that fought bravely during the Civil War and was portrayed in the movie Glory, was made up of free blacks from the North, not escaped slaves as portrayed in the film. And Donald Bogle, author of the book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks - An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, asks why the movie Driving Miss Daisy left the black chauffer's "other world," his relationships and perspectives when away from Daisy's home, "undramatized."
In The Help, it has been frequently pointed out that it is the plucky white journalist who initiates the primary action not the African American maids. It's fair and important to ask where are the Fannie Lou Hamer's, the Anne Moody's, the Diane Nash's who far from being inert, challenged the legal structure and the Klan in the years before and during the time the movie is set and who did not have to be encouraged by a white college grad to do so.
Nash, to use one example, was arrested on trumped up charges in Jackson while pregnant in 1962. She stood before the judge and told him that if her child was born in jail it did not matter as every child in Mississippi was already in prison. How many film goers will know that in 1955 - eight years before the setting for The Help - ten thousand African Americans gathered in Mound Byour, Mississippi to declare their determination to vote? Or that in 1963, 85,000 black Mississippians cast "freedom ballots" to assert their democratic rights. This in a state where over 600 blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1940.
The Help, while it emotionally leads you by the nose, does have the strength of looking closely at the lives and work of a group of dignified women.
This brings us back to Alice Echols and the Magic Trip. Echols refers to Kesey and company as sexist but coed. There is valuable film footage and a glimpse into the incipient counter-culture belief that in order to save your soul you had to resist a life of alienated labor and social convention. But a question arises about Magic Trip that is the same question that can be directed at The Help. Who is doing the initiating? Who is in the driver's seat? On Kesey's bus at least, women didn't get close to the steering wheel.
Donald Bogle - Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks - An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films
Mark C. Carnes, Ed. - Past Imperfect - History According to the Movies
Alice Echols - Shaky Ground - The Sixties and Its Aftershocks
David Halberstan - The Children (for background on Diane Nash)