PUT DIFFERENTLY AUGUST 17, 2011
In the week since its release, The Help, a movie telling the story of a group of black maids in the South in the early 1960s, has been derided repeatedly in blog posts and reviews as a lazy collection of racist tropes, an irredeemable expression of naive bigotry. In an article in the New York Times, film critic Nelson George condemns the filmmakers for failing to properly “come to terms” with America’s racist past. In her review, the University of Georgia’s Valerie Boyd simply called The Help “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation.”
But I suspect more than a few Americans—many of them black—are coming out of The Help asking their companions “Um, was that movie really racist?” The answer, simply, is no—and the absence of bigotry in the film ought to be apparent to anyone watching it with an open mind. Unfortunately, many people obviously aren’t.
But the ubiquity of the insults against The Help, despite its evident lack of racism, is itself instructive. All too often, charges of racism are the products not of reasoned analysis, but cognitive dissonance: an implacable pique at white America for never quite “owning” its racism, despite a lack of clarity as to just what this owning would entail.
It is a frame of mind that is the product of one of the glummest detours in black history. Just when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts gave thoughtful black people the grounds for a truly autonomous and positive racial self-image, identity politics and the hard-left turn in the world of letters taught instead that that there was a higher wisdom in hearkening ever back to despair. The second shoe having yet to drop, many blacks have been left with a self-conception that is perpetually incomplete—they are ever-questing, ever-owed, never truly whole. Told they were nothing for centuries, many black people are choosing to keep that legacy alive by assailing the depredations of an abstract and evil other, rather than adopt a more self-directed and positive self-image.
In media criticism, this world view manifests itself in the pedantic dismissal of nearly all commercially viable depictions of black people as stereotypes, insults, and other evasions of that eternally withheld “acknowledgment” of racism. Though it is presented as a form of pride, this studiously joyless way of taking in films and television is actually a lack of self-sufficiency and independence of mind. In that way, black pundits’ reflexively hostile take on The Help is a more articulate testament to the depredations of racism than anything in the movie itself.
LET’S REVIEW THE PLOT of this supposedly so benighted piece of work. Emma Stone’s Skeeter, fresh from college and seeking a writing career in contrast to her housewife friends, compiles an oral history book from her Mississippi town’s black maids, starting with one friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). Despite her employer’s pitiless treatment, including restricting her to a separate bathroom, Aibileen comes along only reluctantly, scarred by her son’s death from racist neglect after an accident and memories of violence inflicted after black people she knows even tried to vote. Even her fiery-tempered friend Minny comes along only with trepidation, meanwhile getting fired from her job for an especially colorful act of insubordination. Local NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers’ assassination, and a more local injustice sparked by Hilly Holbrook, an especially bigoted queen-bee friend of Skeeter’s, spur 31 more maids to come forward for the book. It’s a hit. It gets Skeeter a New York writing job she reluctantly leaves home to take, but leaves Aibileen jobless for contributing to it. Walking away from the employer’s house for the last time, she feels a certain freedom, but she has no job, and also despairs at abruptly leaving the white child who thought of her as her real mother.
This is a “feel-good movie for a cowardly nation”? How could it be that this film, hardly The Sorrow and the Pity but honest and thoroughly affecting, is being treated like a remake of Imitation of Life?
We must dismiss out of hand a discomfort with this sad period being “packaged” by Hollywood at all. The Help certainly includes swelling strings on the soundtrack, what Nelson George terms its “candy-coated cinematography,” and neatly intertwining stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Some might prefer a visually peculiar, spiritually ambiguous, narratively desultory art-house opus. But that film would be seen by only a few, which would contravene the imperative that America as a whole needs to see it to learn about its racist past.
Consider for a moment the opposite case: Say that Hollywood, with its fundamentally commercial orientation, decided not to touch topics as sensitive as the Civil Rights story. The very same critics would no doubt despair that, “Hollywood doesn’t want to address America’s racist past.” The critics who inveigh against The Help for its mass market appeal are being duplicitous. Long ago, black film and television historian Donald Bogle counseled that “black films can liberate audiences from illusions, black and white, and in so freeing can give all of us vision and truth.” That’s a very debatable proposition—but, in any case, it would require that this “responsibility” be exercised within realistic commercial parameters. To be liberated, the audience has to show up.
Within these commercial bounds, then, a major beef of the critics is that the film fails to, as Nelson George judges the issue, “come to terms” with America’s racist past. George dislikes that the film treats Medgar Evers’ murder as a background occurrence, impatient with the story’s dwelling on kitchens and living rooms. But writers have used interpersonal interactions to bring historical periods alive for a very long time now: Is George opposed to the genre of historical fiction? Surely not—but apparently the Civil Rights movement is an exception, incommensurate somehow with the “responsibility” Bogle referred to, perhaps.
But even here, would George allow even an Evers-centered version of The Help as having finally “come to terms” with racism, given that in his article he even feels that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X fell short of the task? And what, exactly, do we mean by “coming to terms”? We must know, if these critics’ complaints are to qualify as constructive counsel. The difficulty of conceiving an answer is indicative. It is not unreasonable to wonder if there is a plausible development in film that could ever qualify as having done the deed. Is complaint the goal itself?
Or take Valerie Boyd’s objection that “The movie never links [Evers’] assassins’ behavior to the relatively benign, comedic behavior of Hilly and her ilk.” Again, in terms of how a film is written and performed, just how would this “linking” be done effectively? Is a character supposed to give a speech about the nature of institutional racism, only to look like a pasted-in mouthpiece? “Coming to terms with racism” is today an almost musical phraseology in the guise of concrete suggestion, along the lines of claims that there is a “conversation” of unspecified format on race that America “never has,” as Attorney General Eric Holder referred to in 2009 and Boyd, predictably, references.
THAT THESE WRITERS are driven more by a frozen animus than a response to the film itself is especially clear in that they miss so much in the narrative that contradicts their analysis. George asks of films about black history, “Do the filmmakers put us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of cheering whites to integrate a segregated school?” and proposes that “It is this nuanced humanity that this movement demands.”
Nuance, we suppose, such as when Aibileen, soberly describing what it’s like to raise other people’s children while your own are at home—or dead—recounts to Skeeter how another white toddler she all but raised asked why she was black and Aibileen jokingly said it was because she had drunk too much coffee. Davis imitates the toddler’s facial expression and drifts into laughter through near tears. It’s a heartbreaking passage, worthy of an Oscar alone. No “nuance” here?
“The sense of physical danger that hovered over the Civil Rights movement is largely absent,” George decides—of a film in which the police crack one maid over the head with a club so soundly that the audience I saw it with winced, and other black women make assorted references to beatings and burnings that have scared them into submission? The Help denies “the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice” in favor of cartoons, George says, about a film that includes a bus driver casually saying “a nigger got shot” to black riders, plus the scenes involving the separate toilets, and much else.
Boyd, meanwhile, misses that Abileen is paid for the book along with Skeeter; that, while Skeeter does not stand up and make a speech about the evils of bigotry, she is so disgusted with Hilly’s racism that the two are no longer friends by the middle of the film, at which point Skeeter embarrasses her publicly; and that the maids do not “inexplicably” consent to be interviewed about the hardships of their lives—they do so slowly and reluctantly, and always fearing for their lives.
One senses that for many, the sheer fact that the movie is about black maids prepared them to sharpen their pencils to decry dusted off Queenies and Beulahs, with the actual content of the movie of little interest. “The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy,” the Association of Black Women Historians complains, a judgment hard to imagine from people who have actually seen both The Help and Gone With the Wind.
CRITICS ALSO SEEM UNCOMFORTABLE with the fact that the film includes comedy. Non-black critics, too, are regularly exhibiting the same supposedly wise skepticism of such “hijinks;” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis considers the occasional comedy scenes trivializing, as if in the old South blacks and whites spending most of their waking lives with one another interacted solely in chilly, guarded fashion. We like to imagine it that way, as it comforts us that we are aware of the injustice of racism. But to dismiss about ten total minutes of edgy antics involving Minny and about five more involving commodes and bad hair days as rendering the whole movie “about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger” is, ironically, a dehumanization of the black experience.
We dishonor black people of the past in assuming that they spent their entire lives fuming at the white man and suffering his abuse. As human beings with a survival instinct, they carved meaningful existences out of what they had been given. This included laughing and good times and, yes, some of it was between whites and blacks.
Laughing, good times, and love, too. The titillation aspect assures that we are regularly taught about the carnal part—Sally Hemmings and such. But maids who raise people’s children have always come to love them, and even Jim Crow could not stanch this fundamental aspect of human nature. It was once common in South Carolina and Georgia for white children to grow up speaking the maids’ “Geechee” dialect, so close was this kind of bond. Aibileen’s love for a little white girl seems to especially get under many critics’ skin: “The kind of ambiguity and complexity that a woman like Aibileen would have felt for that white child is too much for the filmmakers to handle,” Boyd complains. But it could be that it’s Boyd who doesn’t want to handle that a black maid could hate the racism of her society and yet love an innocent white child she spends six days a week one on one.
AT THE END of the day, it is hard to see what The Help’s creators could have done that would have passed muster. Those ever seeking for Hollywood to “come to terms” with black people have developed such an imposing battery of objection tropes over the past forty years that I suspect they would reject even Raisin in the Sun as a bag of stereotypes if it were new.
The Association of Black Women Historians, for example, has distributed a statement condemning the film for, among other things, not depicting white men sexually harassing their maids. But then if The Help had, say, Dennis Quaid as a white husband violating Aibileen, while later Minny’s daughter, starting out as a maid, underwent the same from, oh, let’s say Matthew McConnaughey, wouldn’t we be hearing that The Help is one more film soft-pedaling the strength of black women working hard to support their families, and instead depicting black women as vehicles for white male lust? That was the word on the street, recall, about Monster’s Ball with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Or, if Aibileen were shown writing the book herself, which various critics would prefer, wouldn’t it be time to gripe that it sugarcoated the remorseless limitations on advancement for poorly educated black women of the period?
Let’s try a version of The Help that might pass muster with its current critics. The maids would hold the white children at a polite arm’s length. Evers’ murder would be the dramatic focus. The white men behind it would be the main characters, while the maids’ women employers would be background figures. Also, to assuage a common strain in the criticisms, an obscure, very humble working-class black maid of modest education in 1963 would sense it plausible to pen a protest manuscript herself and send it to publishers, rather than rely on Skeeter to do the writing and submission.
To wit: The film that The Help should have been would be psychologically implausible, dramatically reductive, preachy, and not The Help at all. I cannot accept that this would be preferable for any reason to the solid, affecting Hollywood drama that I took in.
Of course, putting this burden on The Help might make a kind of sense if American society were actually as resistant to acknowledging racism as we are so often told. One might see the film as a precious opportunity to introduce a forgotten story, and understandably wince to see the focus on living rooms rather than streets, women in the afternoon rather than Klansmen at night, and sprinklings of harmony in a story that should be about gunshots and fire hoses.
But blissfully, time did not stop in 1963. Historians black and white churn out books and films on racism year round. There will soon be a black history museum in Washington, DC. There is a Black History Month. Mainstream media organs are assiduously devoted to coverage of the black experience: The New York Times is even disproportionately committed to covering white yuppies moving into poor black neighborhoods over countless other ethnic moving trends. Colleges and universities regularly have black studies programs and departments. Stories about racism against black people are prime fodder for the media. Socially, being accused of racism is almost as feared as being accused of pedophilia. Recently, for a while there were three Broadway productions exploring racism, past and present, running at the same time: Race, Memphis and The Scottsboro Boys. The first two were hits. The third was brought to the Great White Way despite not having been a hit Off-Broadway, and by white producers. All three will have long lives in productions around the country.
Post-racial America is not, but is this an America in denial about racism? Yet The Help’s critics seek a relentlessly glum, purse-lipped threnody of a film—perhaps shot in black and white?—monotonously instructing America in its moral inadequacy. Yet if Hollywood did produce a string of race-related narratives that 1) did not “feel good” 2) were judged as “coming to terms with racism” by our critics and 3) were somehow seen by more than seven people, the new word on the street would be that America’d better not think it’s off the hook just because of a few movies. This is not intellection; it is recreation.
More than a few black Americans harbor scars from the contemptuous treatment their grandparents endured from the likes of Hilly Holbrook. This is why it is perceptible that these critics are seeking The Help to heal not America, or black people in general, but themselves.
The Help’s director and producer Tate Taylor, white, grew up with a black maid. She’s still alive, and in the film as the first of the maids after Minny to testify for Skeeter. For the record, Tate brought her to the premiere of the film. She loved it.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.