The Help: “Tackling Racism”?

By Todd Ford

The other day, I entered this on Facebook: “Had a great anniversary date today. Saw  The Help. Made us both cry. Really  good movie.” A friend pointed me to an article by online movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz. It decried how once again “Hollywood” was trivializing the history of racism in America.

What follows is an abridgement of our ensuing discussion:

ME: I like Seitz, but I think he’s beating a dead horse. I’ve read this article at least a dozen times over the years. Sure, The Help is a liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy complete with its plucky white heroine moving to NYC in the end where her enlightened ideas will be appreciated. I thought the performances elevated the material though. It also hit some universal notes. My wife cried because of how scenes connected with her experiences as a nanny.

I also sympathize with “Hollywood.” Such fish out of water stories are very durable. (How different really is this from plucky Dorothy entering the land of Oz?) And I’m struggling to think of any financially successful movies that plunk us down in the middle of a foreign land without the aid of an identification figure. How would one write The Wizard of Oz confined entirely to Oz and Ozians?

FRIEND: Yeah, but in the case of Oz and Ozians, there’s not a history of hundreds of years of violent, horrific racial oppression that’s being whitewashed over to make us feel better about cultural sins that should weigh on all of us because we call a country that is capable of such evil – was and still is – “home.”

ME: Fair enough. How would you like to see this issue presented in a movie in a way that would attract sizable Middle American white audiences?

FRIEND: Making Middle American white audiences feel better about themselves vis-a-vis these issues, as if they, too, are not somehow complicit in the raging inequalities that still ravage this country shouldn’t be on Hollywood’s to-do list. The fact that it is speaks, in my opinion, to widespread cultural death that has paralyzed the vast majority of our mainstream arts.

ME: I understand what you’re saying. Do you think there is a way of approaching racism in a movie that doesn’t get tangled up in these problems? Or are you saying that racism should be off the table altogether? And if a movie attempts to tackle the subject, does it accomplish anything if the people who most need to hear its message don’t show up?

FRIEND: I think movies that “tackle racism” are great. I don’t think “making white people feel good about not being racists” equates to “tackling racism” though.  The Help is just that – a pat piece of, to give it a sinister but nonetheless apt title, racial propaganda aimed towards making white people feel better.

With regards to “the people who most need to hear it,” the portrayals of racists in the movie do just the opposite.

Seitz put it best: “It is inconceivable that any viewer of any race, age or gender could look at the bigoted, greedy, petty, pinch-faced shrews that torment poor Aibileen and think: ‘That person reminds me of myself.’ They’re paper targets that the movie can pepper with rhetorical buckshot.”

ME: You make good points my friend. This movie won’t make any inroads into the minds of modern day racists. The white villains of the picture are too many caricatures (they reminded me of the white characters in The Color Purple). We need a movie that everyone will see and will make everyone say, “My God! That’s me!”

3 responses to “The Help: “Tackling Racism”?

  1. Mark Schneider

    Too narrow and too critical. I worked as a civil rights lawyer (US Commission on Civil Rights) in the South (including Mississippi) in the mid-70s. I can assure you that what you perceive as “stereotypes” and “caricatures” in The Help movie are, in fact, dead on, accurate, and representative of the prevailing racial attitudes at the time. Does that mean that there wasn’t racism in the North or anywhere else? Adamantly not, but the point is that The Help is an honest portrayal of a very Jim Crow society in the South that, by force of law as well as custom, intended to remain extremely “unreconstructed”. One simply cannot view this recent past from our current perspective. To do so does a disservice to the real horror of the legacy of slavery and undermines the steadfast courage and accomplishments of those who, through their actions–and often at the cost of their lives–kept their eyes on the prize and changed our Country for the better. Are we, as a Nation, at the “Mountaintop”. No, but the climb, always uphill and daunting, is well begun And we dare not forget where we started.

  2. Mark Schneider

    Why won’t my email be published? I need an answer if you expect me to offer any further comments. Mark Schneider

  3. Hi Mark, Thanks for your thoughts on Todd’s column. We moderate all our comments now as we’re just getting started with this online format. Check our Comments Policy to see how we’re approaching it at the moment. -Cat