Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is There Any Helping "The Help?"

Isn't it always the case the book is better than the film? The book's success withstanding, it seems the controversy surrounding Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" has taken on a life of its own. It appears the line between fiction versus non-fiction has been blurred and no one can tell which is which anymore.

Despite the controversy some critics take with the author's choice of vernacular or the lawsuit Ablene Cooper is bringing against Stockett, I tried walking into a pre-screening of this film with an open mind. A few weeks ago, my girl (and fellow cultural critic) April Scissors and I walked in all revved up and ready to analyze.

As we shift further into another era of popularity for the interracial narrative, I couldn't help but worry this would be yet another "white savior" film. You know what I'm talking about: a person of color (and their community) is portrayed as disparaging and desperate; enter: the white character. Through an intimate relationship, the white character is able to guide the other character(s) into the status quo (read: whiteness) thus saving them from what would otherwise be a horrible life. Right? You know, neo-colonialism. The reservations I had going into this screening were the exact sentiments I had before finally deciding to watch "The Blind Side."

Unfortunately, this film falls into this niche all the same. While "The Help" does very little to challenge the racial status quo of Hollywood, it does have its own shining moments. After all the success and Academy attention "The Blind Side" received, did you really think studio executives weren't going to run with it?

It probably didn't help I had already been in the mindset of exploring Black women in Hollywood and their relationship to the maid trope. Between re-reading the first few chapters of Donald Bogle's "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films" and catching the previews of Sanaa Lathan's performance in Lynn Nottage's "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark", I have been trying to understand America's obsession with the maid/domestic narrative. What is it about seeing a Black women continually play the maid that keeps the trope timelessly digestable? Regardless of time's passing, it has never gotten old. From Victor Fleming's "Gone With the Wind" to Jessie Nelson's "Corrina, Corrina" and now Tate Taylor's directorial debut with "The Help", we've gone through decades of familiar narratives being told on screen. So what makes "The Help" different?

I will say I appreciated the white leading character, Skeeter (Emma Stone), approaching the topic of cultural appropriation with sensitivity. There is a scene where Minnie (Octavia Spencer) is brought into the plan to share "the help's" stories. Minnie questions Skeeter's intentions and audiences have the potential to see a white character examining what her whiteness means and how it is operating. This does not mean this film had flawless scenes but one could at least see the racial consciousness that had been built within Skeeter by interacting and developing an intimate relationship with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie. Skeeter's development throughout the film force other white characters to reflect on the ways in which their actions reinforce white supremacy. There is a scene where one character shamefully admits to Skeeter that "courage sometimes skips a generation." The courage being referenced is the courage to stand up for your values even when they involve risks.

The thing I appreciated most about this film was its acknowledgment that without Black women, these white women would have been nothing. Black women nurtured the self-esteem of white children and allowed them to grow up with a stronger sense of confidence, a confidence that is often attributed to their biological parents. In several scenes, Aibileen is seen telling the child she cares for, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." In a cultural moment where attacks are being made on Black mothers and imagery of the "welfare queen" continue permeating society, "The Help" highlights how white supremacy took/takes some Black women from their own children to tend to white children (or to work for ridiculous wages in an area far from home). It showed the negligence on the part of white families. To me, it put accountability into the hands of white folks; all the while, never blatantly using the buzz words people don't like to hear--racism and white supremacy.

Furthermore, films such as these illustrate the contradictions of white supremacy. In one scene, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the uptight, self-loathing trouble-maker, addresses "the help" as liars and thiefs. Oddly enough, the book Aibileen, Minnie and Skeeter are working on becomes a tell-all for all of the intimate lies the white women of Jackson, Mississippi tell regularly. The film attempts to reverse the gaze. While Hilly painted these Black women as untrustworthy, she was the one lying all along. Duh moment, right? However, her white skin gave her a legitimacy the Black characters were not afforded. White privilege.

This film will frustrate some; it will please others. It will frustrate some because they will ask why there aren't many movies where Black folks save the day, where Black folks save Black communities. It will please others because it is a familiar narrative, where the morality of white folks are restored and they don't have to feel entirely bad about themselves. This is what Hollywood does. It re-creates truth but it also creates illusions. The illusion being that white people can dismantle white supremacy by staying comfortable. The work of anti-racism and decolonizing the mind is rarely, if ever, comfortable.

Ultimately, I hope this film will inspire [white] folks to self-reflect--not only about the historical significance of this film, but in acknowledging that racial tensions still prevail in our society. Oftentimes, I find myself saying we are in the Brown v. Board era of cinema. By that I mean, just because nine Black people were allowed into the school that is Hollywood, it doesn't mean we don't have work to do.

What's your take? Is there any helping "The Help"? See for yourself. Tate Taylor's "The Help" is out August 12th, 2011.

Johnathan Fields is a graduate student at DePaul University in Media & Cinema Studies. With a bachelors degree in African & Black Diaspora Studies and Philosophy, his areas of interest include: media representations of race, gender, and sexuality in popular culture, Black feminist theory, Diasporic literature and critical race theory. He is also the latest addition to this site's family of contributors. For more information, visit


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