On Racism and The Help



There isn’t much that I can say about Tate Taylor’s hit social message drama The Help from a pure critical standpoint that hasn’t already been said.  My own reaction is south of my colleague Mike’s review, but the film is not quite “bad.”  I can’t exactly champion a film with such an overlong running time and spurious plotting, but Viola Davis is the real deal, no question about it.  In fact, the whole cast is fine.

But despite its unremarkable but nice enough amiability, the film has kicked up somewhat of a heated debate over the portrayal of its subject matter.  Perhaps the most high-profile detractors of The Help are The Association of Black Women Historians, who say it “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers… it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”  Public intellectual Melissa Harris-Perry raged, “Hard to tell whether it’s the representations of black women or of white women that’s most horrible.”  But it’s not just political activists speaking out.  Here are some choice condemnations from notable critics:

  • Joe Morgenstern – “…made me feel worse about life by recalling bumptious black mammies of movies past.”
  • Wesley Morris – “…sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism.”
  • Glenn Kenny – “The picture almost seems to say that most of the racism in Mississippi was a result of peer pressure, hardly a helpful conclusion.”

Oh, but it doesn’t end there.  Plenty of defenders on the beat have rushed to shake their fingers at those accusing The Help of White Guilt BS.  From David Poland to Drew McWeeny to Owen Gleiberman, plenty of writers have been calling the accusations of whitewashing history unfair.  To them, such complaints undercut the genuine sentiment of the film for the sake of political grandstanding.

Before I go any further, I should just admit upfront that I really have no “right” to express any judgments about the portrayals of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Era.  I am a wealthy white male and I’m starting a career of enormous privilege.  While I have experienced my own share of unique hardships, I can’t even pretend to know what race or class discrimination feels like, and I certainly have no grounds to complain about the portrayals of young white men in the movies.  If any of you reading this have actually experienced bigotry (or it’s a part of your family history) and think I have it all wrong, I am more than happy to hear your point of view.

Anyway…on some level, I sympathize with those who are frustrated at the hostile reaction to The Help’s glossy view of racial politics.  For one thing, where was all of this indignation when The Blind Side was released?  That movie was far more offensive and racist than Taylor’s film, as at least the latter actually developed its African-American characters.  Sure, a lot of finger-pointing happened after the fact, but it was totally disproportionate to the current vituperations against The Help.  I also feel that the criticism of the film’s tone is relatively unreasonable.  Is its depiction of racial issues as a crowd-pleasing tearjerker any worse than Lee Daniels’ kitchen-sink miserablism in Precious, or Tyler Perry depicting black womanhood as some sort of supernatural crucible in For Colored Girls?  Serious-minded “othering” of minorities is no less off-putting than light-hearted treatment of the subject, to my mind.

However, just because some of the charges levied against the film are somewhat overblown does not mean they have no merit.  Let’s be honest, here: Skeeter’s role in the story is too large.  It makes the narrative bloated and unwieldy, and smacks of studio nervousness at the idea of telling black stories without an open-minded white audience surrogate.  A lot of the oft-complained historical moments being rushed through – the Kennedy assassination, the Medgar Evers assassination, etc. – could have easily been given the time and weight they deserved had the film not wasted its time on Skeeter’s pointless romance subplot or her other asides.  I love Emma Stone, don’t get me wrong, but this is not her story.  No, this isn’t the worst example of telling minority stories through unnecessary white frames, but that doesn’t excuse it.

But there are plenty of other issues with The Help that should not just be brushed aside by its supporters.  While I did not agree with all of Prof. Harris-Perry’s complaints, she was 100% DEAD ON with this choice quote, “Oh yeah, ‘cute’ stunts like the pie incident would have provoked community-wide violent reprisals. Not audience giggles.”  Not only is she absolutely right, not only did I also have a huge problem with that part of the movie (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet), but it epitomizes exactly what people are referring to by saying The Help whitewashes that period in history, and that whole subplot belied Aibileen and Minny’s fear of the “consequences” of talking to Skeeter.

Or let’s talk about the depiction of Hilly Holbrook.  You know, the evil socialite who pushes that Community Sanitation initiative?  Oh, isn’t she just so awful?  Forcing the maids to use different bathrooms, and ostracizing poor Celia, and not giving Yule Mae a loan, and what she does to Aibileen in the end?  In fact, I can’t think of a single redeemable thing about her, which is so…convenient.  How convenient that the film’s primary antagonist is so far removed from any kind of recognizable humanity that everyone in the audience can relax and see that as the face of racism.  Oh no, racism didn’t manifest in subtler, more insidious ways.  They weren’t ingrained in otherwise decent people (and when that was the case, like Charlotte, they immediately realized their error and changed on the spot!).  And there certainly aren’t any remnants of it in the present.  Whites can be comforted with bigotry only being a trait of cartoon villains of a time gone by!  Interestingly, her character reveals this as a huge flaw when she warns Skeeter that, “There are real racists in this town!”  This of course elicited chuckles from the audience I was with, laughing at her obliviousness.  But did any of them wonder if they excuse themselves from small-minded thoughts in the same way?  Were any of them struck by how often that irony is lost on so many bigots here and now?  Of course not, because they all cleared the extremely low moral bar set by Hilly, and the opportunity for self-awareness was lost.

But I’ve noticed that when these points (and more) are brought up to staunch supporters of Taylor and Stockett’s story, the response isn’t acknowledgement or measured disagreement, but outright defensive anger.  How DARE we find problems with this perfect movie!  In fact, some of their rebuttals are downright bizarre.  Take this tweet from Drew McWeeny, for example: “Here’s a serious question: would you rather we just never make films about the civil rights era at all? Seems like it.”  Hopefully you all have at least a cursory understanding of basic logic and instantly spotted the absurd false dilemma in that statement.  Gleiberman’s response is even worse, doing nothing more than seemingly repeating the press kit for the film and telling those offended by it to sit down, shut up, and be grateful that Hollywood was generous enough to give the black maids substantial parts this time.

Look, whether one was bothered by these problematic elements or not, they do exist in The Help.  We can’t pretend like they don’t, and we certainly can’t resent those who bring them up.  It is absolutely reasonable to be entertained by a film while simultaneously being troubled by its implications.  It is fair to not feel the same offense that Melissa Harris-Perry did while watching this film.  But what is not reasonable, or fair, is to believe that Hollywood can’t possibly transcend White Savior or Mammy stereotypes, or that those who demand they do are “over-sensitive” or “reading too much into it.”  We should be past that.

P.S. — Note to filmmakers: there is absolutely no context and no film where the line “I loves me some fried chicken” is appropriate.  Ever.