What we talk about when we talk about "The Help"

Whitewash of history or intimate breakthrough? This summer's hit racial drama is also its biggest topic of conversation

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 17, 2011 10:18PM (EDT)

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help"
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help"

It seems likely that no film since Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" has gotten so many moviegoers talking about the history of race and racism in America as has this summer's hit "The Help," which was adapted by writer-director Tate Taylor from his old friend Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel. The contrast between the two is instructive, if not alarming. Lee's film was set in its own present tense, on the racially polarized streets of late-1980s Brooklyn, N.Y. Taylor's film, for all its evident strengths, is a candy-colored and wildly ahistorical voyage into the Jim Crow past, a mashup of "Steel Magnolias," "Mad Men" and "Mississippi Burning," with the fire confined to the kitchen.

When I wrote in my original review of "The Help" that it was "a Rorschach test that measures how you feel about the history of racial inequality in America," I really had no idea. I mean, "The Help" will make lots of money and is well positioned to clean up in awards season, but its real function in society is as a conversation-starter (and a Twitter hashtag), whether you're male, female, black, white or both/neither. Roll "Captain America" and the new "Transformers" movie and "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech" into a ball, and you don't have one-tenth the heated debate produced by "The Help." It has been passionately attacked and almost as passionately defended; the Association of Black Women Historians generated more ink in one day than the organization has received throughout its existence by publishing an angry takedown of "The Help's" historical, moral and narrative shortcomings.

I've already had my say, and clarified my personal mixed-to-positive reaction to "The Help" as best I could. This is something else: An attempt to classify the major memes and themes in the divided critical response to "The Help," and to offer supporting arguments from some of the film's most vehement lovers and haters in the media. Even if "The Help" is about life in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s -- and I have my doubts that it's really about that -- the story of the reactions it produces is a story of 2011, when Jim Crow is dead and buried and a black man lives in the White House, but when we may not have come quite as far as we like to think.

"The Help" is a condescending fable for white liberals, or at least a story that congratulates white viewers "for not being horrible racists."

That quoted phrase comes from Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club, whose review pithily summarizes the principal line of attack against "The Help." As my Salon colleague Matt Zoller Seitz has put it, "The Help" is "yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: 'How did this affect white people?' and 'Aren't you glad you're not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?'"

In fairness, even most critics who like the movie would agree that its principal audience is white people, and that it's a mainstream Hollywood entertainment package that's intended to reassure and uplift its viewers, not to challenge them directly. As we'll see later, the question of how you interpret that undisputed fact is central to your reaction to the film.

Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, who is arguably the most prominent African-American film critic, didn't despise "The Help" or anything, but agrees that it "joins everything from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' to 'The Blind Side' as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism."

Andrew Schenker of Slant magazine goes further, saying that the film places its (presumably white) viewer "in a superior position where he or she is free to -- and indeed expected to -- respond with a facile round of laughter at those benighted whites of a bygone era." For Sara Maria Vizcarrondo of Boxoffice magazine, the problem is even worse; she calls the film "a chick-flick for do-gooders" and suggests (I think hyperbolically) that "its treatment of inequality is more condescending than the prejudice it aims to remedy."

No, "The Help" is a story of everyday liberation, of tiny steps toward equality and freedom, and about "the form that activism could take among women who weren't activists."

That quote comes from Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, who followed up his glowing original review with a lengthy blog post at EW.com titled "Is 'The Help' a condescending movie for white liberals?" defending Taylor's film from a whole litany of criticisms, including those of the black female historians' group. Whether or not you buy his arguments, the whole thing is well worth reading, especially since Gleiberman agrees, in general terms, with the Seitz-Morris argument that Hollywood too often frames racial issues as condescending, white-centered pablum. "The movie's central narrative mechanism," Gleiberman writes, "whereby a well-meaning college graduate named Skeeter (Emma Stone) interviews the maids of Jackson for an anonymous tell-all book about their experiences, seems to conform to the conventional, patronizing arc of a white heroine lending a noble hand of assistance to black characters who couldn't, without her help, have done it on their own." But in this case, he goes on, analyzing the film in those terms isn't fair. 

If you forget about what "The Help" looks like it adds up to "on paper," and if you actually watch what's up there on screen, what you'll see is a movie that is tender, biting, honest, surprising, and far, far more curious and morally adventurous about race than many have given it credit for. The key to the film's power, and its originality, is this: It's a movie not about taking bold crusader's stands -- which, at this point, wouldn't be a bold movie to make anyway -- but about the low-key, day-to-day, highly ambivalent intimacy of black/white relationships in the Deep South. It's about what really goes on in middle-class households between the lines of the most seemingly ordinary encounters.

Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer describes "The Help" more succinctly, but in similar terms: "Like its characters, it has its faults. But overall, it is a movie of imaginative sympathy that gets into the skin of its characters, into their hearts, and, ultimately, into ours."

Mike Scott of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote one of the more peculiar reviews of "The Help," an enthusiastic rave that, along the way, acknowledges that the movie's relationship to history is highly dubious and that it's a fairy tale primarily directed at a white female audience. "'The Help' isn't intended to be so much a movie about the ugliness of the era than an optimistic tale of what can spring from that kind of ugliness, about the ability of people to love one another even when they're surrounded by hatred. And on that level, 'The Help' succeeds wonderfully, a warm and sweet song of hope -- and chocolate pie -- that pushes all the right buttons." (Viewers of the film, and readers of Stockett's novel, will already know what's really in that infamous pie.)

The main character, and central audience focal point, is Skeeter, Emma Stone's do-gooder college-graduate journalist, continuing Hollywood's long tradition of depicting the civil rights era as a major crisis in the lives of white people.

Matt Zoller Seitz describes "The Help" as "the story of a perky proto-feminist writer cajoling black women into standing up for themselves by telling her their stories and letting her publish them in book form. It's about what a good-hearted and tenacious person Skeeter is, and how lucky the maids are to have met her." Skeeter's book, in itself a version of Stockett's novel transformed into period-inappropriate nonfiction, is "a fictional flourish that feels like a college-educated white liberal's wish-fulfillment fantasy of how she would have conducted herself had she been time-warped back to the civil rights era."

As Wesley Morris puts it, "Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit. She cracks the mystery of her missing childhood maid (Cicely Tyson). She finds a career at a moment in which women rarely had them. And she changes the lives of a couple of dozen black women whose change is refracted primarily through her."

No, the main character is really Aibilene, the long-suffering maid played by Viola Davis who eventually agrees to tell her story to Skeeter (with support from Octavia Spencer as the feisty Minny, who believes that revenge is a dish best served within pie crust).

You can find literally dozens of reviews of "The Help" that say, yes, the movie may be a mediocre and implausible melodrama with a soft-focus view of history, but Davis' sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance as Aibilene lifts it above itself. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes: "Ms. Davis keeps her cool even as she warms your heart and does her job, often beautifully. She doesn't just turn Aibileen, something of a blur in the novel, into a fully dimensional character, she also helps lift up several weaker performances and invests this cautious, at times bizarrely buoyant, movie with the gravity it frequently seems to want to shrug off."

My former colleague Stephanie Zacharek, always a brilliant commentator on the acting craft, discusses Davis at length in her Movieline review. "In 'The Help,' [Davis] plays a house maid, the kind of role that African-American actresses used to be relegated to and limited by. But the whole idea of 'The Help' is that a maid isn't just a maid, and Davis and her co-star, Octavia Spencer, breathe life into that idea. These are women with families and heartaches of their own, problems that go deeper than the travails of the women they're paid to serve, which mostly seem to revolve around entertaining and maintaining social status. The 'black maid' may be a cliché. But when was the last time we saw a story told from her point of view?"

How far have we really come in the 21st century if the best roles for black women we'll see in a Hollywood movie all year long will be playing classic Hattie McDaniel roles as "colored maids" in Jim Crow-era Mississippi?

Zacharek's remarks offer a rebuttal to this, of course, and Gleiberman addresses this idea at some length. But let's go back to the statement issued by the Association of Black Women Historians, which reads, in part: "'The Help' distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers ... 'The Help's' representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy -- a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them."

Wesley Morris builds on this by writing: "The best film roles three black women will have all year require one of them to clean Ron Howard's daughter's house. [Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly, the story's racist arch-villain.] It's self-reinforcing movie imagery. White boys have always been Captain America. Black women, in one way or another, have always been someone's maid."

Sure, there have been a zillion films about the civil rights era, but "The Help" is something new: an intimate portrait of the lived experience of segregation and the first stirrings of resistance against it, as experienced by ordinary women, black and white.

This actually strikes me as an underdeveloped area of the "Help" discussion -- the fact that, as an unabashed "women's film," and one that interrogates the role white women played as simultaneously the porous border of segregation and its day-to-day enforcers, it stands out from the male-centric world of the conventional civil rights drama. Gleiberman calls the movie "a sprawling ensemble piece that asks everyone in the audience -- black and white, women and men -- to identify with everyone on screen ... Every woman in it has her own way of looking at the world, and the movie wants you to understand how those viewpoints all jostle and mesh and collide."

In her spirited defense of the movie and Stockett's novel, my Salon colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams writes: "One of the most repeated images of 'The Help' is a simple tableau of two women of different backgrounds and colors, just talking. Asking questions. Trying to understand. And that, to me, is the heart of the film. It's not about the big news stories of the early civil-rights era -- it's a story about having difficult and necessary exchanges about race."

No, "The Help" is in no way anything new; it's a facile, feel-good entertainment that glosses over the painful history of race in America and ducks all the toughest questions. Still, it works on its own terms and I kinda liked it.

A wide swath of critics -- and, no doubt, of ordinary moviegoers -- fall into this camp. Even such negative reviewers as Scott Tobias and Wesley Morris grudgingly admit that "The Help" is effective pop entertainment. Dana Stevens of Slate calls the film "a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw wound of race relations in America," but then goes on to write this thoughtful conclusion: 

Part of me wants to say that it's fine for "The Help," book and movie, to exist as a pop-cultural phenomenon. The story simplifies and reduces the civil rights movement, yes, but at least it's about it. That's not nothing given the insulated bubble in which most movies marketed at women take place (the blithely apolitical "Eat Pray Love" comes to mind). The Help raises the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen (that is to say, anyone but white men): Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start? I get the feeling that 'The Help's' reception will be sharply divided by that question -- a division which may in itself be this movie's most valuable contribution.

And leave it to the commonsensical Roger Ebert -- the Great Communicator of movie criticism -- to condense all these points of view into one straightforward paragraph: "This is a good film, involving and wonderfully acted. I was drawn into the characters and quite moved, even though all the while I was aware it was a feel-good fable, a story that deals with pain but doesn't care to be that painful. We don't always go to the movies for searing truth, but more often for reassurance: Yes, racism is vile and cruel, but hey, not all white people are bad."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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