Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Help

The Help wants us to feel bad about the mistreatment of black maids in the Jim Crow South while making the white people in the audience feel good about themselves. These two sometimes competing goals make for a bumpy ride that stops considerably short of confronting the dark heart of white privilege.

I wish it were a more historically accurate portrait of racism—and I wonder whether it would be as effective if it were. The feel-good tone I recoil from may be just what has drawn in so many other people, making them comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings about racism online, in long comment threads that have grown up beneath several thoughtful essays over the past month.

The film filters the experiences of African American maids in early-‘60s Jackson, Mississippi, through the pen of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white writer who collects their testimonials for a book called The Help. Skeeter is an avatar for Kathryn Stockett, the white Southern woman who wrote the novel the movie is based on, and her mediating presence is a problem for The Association of Black Women Historians, which issued a statement saying that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” and calling it “the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”

That syndrome of using black people’s stories as fodder for a white protagonist’s journey of enlightenment has bothered me enormously in other films mentioned by Matt Zoller Seitz in an impassioned attack on The Help in Salon, but I don’t agree with his conclusion that The Help belongs in their ranks. Basing the pivotal character of Aibileen (Viola Davis) on the black woman who helped raise her, I think Stockett just built on what she knew, focusing on what the maids experienced at work and on the charged relationships they formed there. During their long days in white women’s homes, performing often intimate tasks, the maids form complex relationships with their employers and their children, relationships—like Stockett’s with her family maid’s—that are sometimes infused with real love. True, the movie sometimes veers away from those relationships to focus on the relatively uninteresting problems of the white women. But the black women are not in this story to solve problems for the whites. On the contrary: The white women are there to cause problems for their maids.

In fact, one of the movie’s main weaknesses is that the white women are one-dimensional to the point of stereotype. Even Skeeter never becomes much more than a tomboyish career girl, and the young women in her social set are even more firmly pigeonholed, from queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) to body image-obsessed ice queen Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly).

Their group dynamics are just as oversimplified, creating the impression that racism in 1960s Mississippi was purely a matter of personal integrity. While Skeeter, the author and audience surrogate, interacts with the maids with an anachronistically respectful humility, the psychopathic Hilly rides herd on Minny (Octavia Spencer), her maid and Aibileen’s best friend, just because she can. Meanwhile, Hilly’s cowed friends all follow her lead, motivated by insecurity and peer pressure.

Sure, there’s talk now and then of the other powerful institutional forces that are keeping Mississippi’s racial divisions in place, including the KKK and the governor himself, but none of that feels as real as the high school clique-like dynamics of the town’s Junior League, or the personal power of the mean girl in charge. And that makes it too easy for white people watching to reassure ourselves that we would have seen the racism that colored everything at the time for what it was as clearly as Skeeter does and resisted it as easily.

What’s more, by setting up a conniving villain as source of the group’s racism, the movie distorts the nature of the insults the maids of the time endured, which no doubt sprang far more often from the thoughtless exercise of white privilege than they did from intentional cruelty.

Misrepresenting the extent to which unquestioned racism underlay every aspect of social relations between blacks and whites in Jackson at the time also undercuts the sense of dread that any maid who dared tell tales out of school about their employers would have felt, which is more spoken of than felt.

But just as you’re starting to slip out of the story, the great Viola Davis reappears and lets us hear the release in the explosive laughter Aibileen lets out with Minny in some white woman’s kitchen. Or she tells Skeeter/us the story of her son’s death, slowly surfacing all the pain she carries with her to present us with a burden that’s almost too much to bear.

Spencer is excellent too, unleashing the ferocious intensity Minny must bury in her interactions with employers in exchanges like her hurried coaching of her oldest daughter as the girl heads to the bus to launch her own soul-bruising career as a maid.

Are moments like these enough to overcome the movie’s many weaknesses? Your answer will depend on how you feel about “the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen,” as Dana Stevens put it on Slate: “Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start?”

Written for TimeOFF

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