Do We Want The Help?

For the past three weeks the #1 film at the box office had no superheroes, no boy wizards, no transforming cars and no fighting apes. Normally we might celebrate the success of The Help, which tackles a much more adult subject matter than we usually see in mainstream summer films. But not all are pleased with the movie’s triumph.

The Help tells the story of three women. Two of them, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), are African-American maids in 1962 Jim Crow Mississippi. The third one is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring journalist. Skeeter reflects on how an African-American maid raised her much more than her own parents. She reaches out to Aibileen and Minny and encourages them to tell their own stories, detailing the racism and humiliations they and other maids endure.

Writer-Director Tate Taylor adapted the screenplay from Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel. Both Taylor and Stockett are white, a key part of the controversy surrounding both the book and the movie. I have not read the book, but filmmaker and author Nelson George, in a New York Times article, described it as “using local dialect to voice the experiences of the black women, creating a false sense of authenticity that’s vital to the novel.” In other words, it’s a “false sense of authenticity” because it’s a white writer using “black” dialect to voice certain characters.

The race of the author and the director is just the start of the blowback. More damning is the statement by the Association of Black Women Historians, “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as the progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” Actor Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Treme”) described The Help as “a passive version of the terror of the Jim Crow South.” The Jackson Free Press wrote that, in reality, “Aibileen would have been severely beaten and never hired again in the state; anyone related to Skeeter would have been destroyed economically and at least one cross burned in her mama’s yard; and Minny would have been killed and her house burned.”

Finally, we can’t ignore “the mighty whitey” issue. That term, which I first heard from local film critic Joe Barber, describes films that present whites as the main heroes in a civil rights struggle. It’s only through the intervention of these white heroes that justice is done, as George wrote, “giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation.” Author Martha Southgate added that “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth. Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help. The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.”

Those are some serious accusations, but are they justified? More importantly, what do those accusations entail? If the film were guilty of all the charges, you could argue that it should never have been made. Would anyone want a film to see the light of day that “distorts, ignores and trivializes” the history of their race, religion, or nation?

As most of you know, I am not African-American, and I certainly cannot see the film from an African-American perspective. But I think it’s safe to say that African-Americans do not speak with one, monolithic voice. News reports are filled with statements from African-Americans that liked the film. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, reportedly saw The Help at a screening hosted by the NAACP and gave the film “her most passionate blessing.”

As always, the key is to make your own judgements, as African-Americans and whites alike have done. My judgement is that the film has its problems. You can see the wheels turning as the film seems overly manipulative at times. The main villain, social matron Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), often borders on cartoonish. The ending feels a bit too forced and neat.

Despite these drawbacks, The Help succeeds largely due to the exemplary work turned in by Davis and Spencer. The latter has the showier role and runs away with it, displaying impeccable comic timing. Spencer also lets you see Minny’s fire and strength. Davis shines by completely internalizing Aibileen. Even when she is not saying a word, Davis’s face is a window into Aibileen’s struggles and sorrow. When Aibileen does finally open up, Davis delivers her monologue so powerfully that you can’t helped but be moved by Aibileen’s dignity and perseverance.

Even those who have leveled the charges I described earlier acknowledged Davis’s and Spencer’s stellar performances. But what about the charges themselves? Are Stockett and Tate, as white people, unqualified to tell a story centered around African-Americans? My answer is no. If you can tell a story well, your characteristics vs. those of your characters should not make a difference. When producer Quincy Jones asked Steven Spielberg to direct The Color Purple, Spielberg initially said an African-American would be more appropriate. Jones, an African-American, famously replied “You didn’t have to come from Mars to do E.T., did you?”

Long before Spielberg directed Schindler’s List, Australian author Thomas Keneally met with Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg told Keneally how he and others were saved by a war profiteer named Oskar Schindler, and then asked Keneally to write this story. As Pfefferberg later recalled, “Keneally said he was the wrong person to write it – he was only three when World War II broke out, as a Catholic he knew little about the Holocaust, and he didn’t know much about Jewish suffering. I got angry and said that those were three reasons he should write the book.” Had Keneally not overcome his initial doubts based on his own background, we may have never had the landmark novel and the Best Picture-winning film.

That leads to the “mighty whitey” charge. I have no doubt that there are plenty of films where that term may hold true – Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, and Cry Freedom just to name a few. But it does not carry water with The Help. Stockett wrote the novel in part because she was largely raised by an African-American maid. So was Taylor. As Skeeter gradually discovers what happened to her family’s beloved maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), she learns of the other maids’ experiences. Skeeter is the entry way into the story for Stockett, Taylor, and for us as the audience. While Skeeter provides the vehicle for Aibileen, Minny and the other maids to recount their experiences, it is those very maids that take the risks. It is those maids whose tribulations and determination draw you in. They are the heroes of The Help, not Skeeter. If anything, Skeeter’s personal life is the least interesting part of the film.

Perhaps the most serious charge is that The Help “distorts, ignores and trivializes” the African-American struggles in the Jim Crow South. Certainly the film does not show the violence and fear for their lives that African-Americans experienced at that time. There are no severe beatings, lynchings, or cross burnings in the film. But is The Help supposed to convey the totality of that time and place? Not any more than Schindler’s List was supposed to tell of the entire Holocaust, which it did not. The Help focuses on the more subtle form of racism, the way “the help” were relied on but ignored. They raised the children, cooked the meals, and cleaned the houses but were demeaned and treated as less than human by their employers. Sure they could have quit their jobs, but in that location and in that era, what other options did they have? As the film illustrates, many of them felt trapped and endured their sufferings silently. Maybe these maids were not the ones who marched or protested, but does that mean their stories are not worth telling?

The controversy surrounding the film opens a window into a larger problem. The Help does not focus on many aspects of the civil rights era, but where are the films that do? Some of the criticism directed to The Help is that this film is virtually all that’s out there that looks at even a small part of the 50s, 60s or 70s African-American fight for equality. A few years ago Spike Lee made Four Little Girls, a stirring documentary on the Selma church bombing. Stanley Nelson made another terrific documentary, The Freedom Riders, about the young men and women, black and white, who risked their lives trying to integrate bus lines. Can anyone tell me why those stories would not make riveting feature films? How about the lunch counter sit-ins? How about the March on Washington? Speaking of which, with the new Dr. Martin Luther King memorial, why hasn’t there been a feature film about his life? There was a TV miniseries in the late 70s, but that’s been about it. HBO produced Boycott, about the 50s bus boycotts, but that was also confined to TV, as was the landmark documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

I don’t think that Hollywood is racist so much as it is scared that civil rights films won’t make money. The New York Times reported that both Lee Daniels (Precious) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93) had planned films about Dr. King, only to have the financing collapse. Of course no one thought Holocaust films would succeed until Schindler’s List became a huge hit. It only takes one to succeed and then others can follow. Say what you want about Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor, and the others behind The Help, but they took a risk. The problem is not that they took this risk but that more in Hollywood are not doing the same.

Adam Spector
September 1, 2011

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