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How Racist is "The Help"?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik August 11, 2011 at 1:46AM

How Racist is "The Help"?

"Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one." -- Hattie McDaniel

Despite Hollywood's best intentions and well-meaning saccharine storytelling, it gets race wrong, repeatedly. From "Driving Miss Daisy" to "Crash" to "The Blind Side" to "Avatar," whiteness remains Hollywood's dominant force, and its stories of racial redemption continually fail to grapple with the realities of America's horrible racism, past and present.

For all those giving a pass to "The Help," forgiving the film's reactionary core for its strong performances or heartwarming uplift, I suggest you consider the deep-seated problem of perpetuating the white savior myth -- once again. It reinforces stereotypes, powerful images of subjugation, that endure in the public consciousness.

I like what Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris wrote in his review of the film:

"The best film roles three black women will have all year require one of them to clean Ron Howard’s daughter’s house. 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. These are strong figures, as that restaurant owner might sincerely say, but couldn’t they be strong doing something else? That’s the hardest thing to reconcile about Skeeter’s book and 'The Help’' in general. On one hand, it’s juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other, it’s an owner’s manual."

In a post called "Why Can't Critics Just Get Along," David Poland criticizes critics for criticizing the fact that "The Help" was made, at all, and not reviewing the film on its relative faults and merits. But Poland doesn't seem to read Morris's point--and mine, as well--that the film's faults are integrally mixed with its premise. To make a film that purports to be about the struggles of black servitude that is actually just another tale about a white person's empowerment is grossly irresponsible, from a political perspective, and kind of lame, from a narrative perspective.

In his 1965 essay, "White Man's Guilt," James Baldwin writes about America's racism: "One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world."

Forty-six years later, it seems, the American white establishment still can't seem to understand that they are responsible for racial discrimination and subjugation, and not, as "The Help" would have it, responsible for breaking down those walls.

I also can't help wonder what does it say about “The Help” that Ablene Cooper, an African American nanny and housekeeper who works for "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law, filed a lawsuit against Stockett, claiming that the central African American maid in the novel — a woman named Aibileen Clark and portrayed in the film by Viola Davis — was based largely on her likeness without her approval. A judge will decide on the case next week, as millions of Americans will fork over cash, enriching more white Americans. The exploitation continues.

This article is related to: Racial Issues, Women's issues, Anti-Hollywood

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