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Sex & Low Beach
This summer’s film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help is certainly a tearjerker—even the elderly man sitting next to me in the theater was dabbing his eyes. But despite the film’s ability to make viewers weep, it’s received a significant amount of negative reviews. Many critics have placed it in the category of “white savior” films with The Blind Side (The Orlando Sentinel), Mississippi Burning (Christian Science Monitor), and Driving Miss Daisy (Buffalo News). It’s been called “simplistic” by Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer and “sneaky” by the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris as well as “crude and obvious” by New Yorker film critic David Denby.
The premise of the film is this: a bright-eyed southern belle fresh out of college, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), is moved by curiosity and compassion to interview a group of black maids about their experiences working in the homes of her friends. The role that Skeeter occupies as a “white savior” who “courageously” speaks out on behalf of helpless and voiceless black maids has been one of the main criticisms of the film in the wake of its release. Peter Rainer writes that the film “implicitly overvalues the historical contribution of whites to the civil rights era.”
Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, and a professor of political science, is wary of “romanticizing” the past. “I grew up in Atlanta in the early Post-Civil Rights era,” he says. “I had relatives who were domestic workers and I don’t remember them sentimentalizing being the help. Their experiences were demeaning, although some did form friendships with their employers, in some contexts.”
Harris says the race divide surrounding the employment of these domestic workers or “mammies” led to their exploitation—lower wages, working on weekends with no pay, even sexual exploitation in some cases. “It’s not to say that people don’t develop intimate relationships in those situations, but the power dynamics make it complicated.”
While The Help may avoid delving deep into political nuance, can the ends justify the means?
“Sometimes there’s fiction that is more true than reality,” says Marcellus Blount, professor of English and African-American studies. “I don’t think that’s the case [with The Help].” Part of what’s missing, he says, is violence. “The Civil Rights era is depicted as largely peaceful for whites. Race is sanitized. I found it distressing because this moment is such a violent one in history.” The movie deals with violence sparingly and indirectly. The murder of Medgar Evers, a Jackson, Mississipi civil rights activist, is briefly addressed in one scene, and in another one of the maids is abused by her husband, who is kept off-screen. “He is silent, and we never get his story,” Blount says. “It’s as though all African-American men are abusive.”
Despite good intentions, the film still tells a small, sentimental story that glosses over the hard facts of the Civil Rights era. For Blount, The Help’s overarching “Hollywood narrative” is kinship, the ultimate bond formed between a white woman and a group of black women, a theme that eclipses the real issues of racism. The film does not tell the story of far-reaching social change—but rather the story of the less significant, anecdotal tolerance of a few individuals. “You don’t get enough of a sense of African-Americans as actors on a political stage,” he says. The sit-ins, the marches, the bus boycotts are all left out. Blount points out that the intended heroine is Skeeter, not the maids.
Yet, Blount calls The Help an “effective” film, especially in terms of gender. “Women are at the center here. I like that it’s an interesting part of the film,” he says. But he adds that the film exaggerates the extent to which women lived their lives independent of men; depicting a social autonomy that he says wasn’t characteristic of the time.
Some viewers are willing to ignore criticisms and find the movie is, at its core, to be well meaning. “I found it touching,” says Haben Fecadu, a Columbia Law School student. “I mean, of course it’s annoying when it’s a white woman telling the stories of black women.” Law School student Adelle Fontanet hasn’t decided whether she wants to see the film. “I’m worried that it will be another moment for white people to pat themselves on the back for what they did,” Fontanet says. “Another Blind Side, a black person’s success story that glorifies white people in the process.”
Blount, who calls The Blind Side (2009) flat out “offensive,” says his reaction to The Help was more complicated. Still, he doesn’t see the film as an indication that mainstream films are getting better at portraying race relations. “I think that American moviegoers are more sophisticated when it comes to explicit racism, but unconscious racism is still very much a problem,” he says. “We still have a long way to go. Hollywood blockbusters are less ambitious when it comes to race. They tend to reward biases more often than they challenge them.”
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